It seems that the United States military-industrial complex has always been good at squandering taxpayer money. But, as the most costly weapons program in our nation’s history, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has taken wasteful spending to a new level.
The F-35 was supposed to replace the F-16 as the nation’s premier fighter jet. But it’s more than seven years behind schedule and more than $163 billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) over budget. It has also been grounded more than a school kid who refuses to study or listen to his parents, leading the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, to call the F-35 program “acquisition malpractice” during an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
In order to fully appreciate the problems with the F-35, it should be noted that a contract for the fighter was awarded to Lockheed-Martin in 2001 with expectations that our combined forces would acquire 2,852 of the planes at a cost of $233 billion. But, following a series of blunders and redesigns, only 114 had been built as of November 2014, and the fighter is not expected to be fully deployed until 2018. Ultimately, the fighters are expected to cost from $98 million to $114 million each with the total cost of the program likely to exceed $400 billion. To make matters worse, the GAO found that operating costs for the F-35 would be 79 percent higher than for the aircraft it replaces. And the F-35A’s cost per flying hour is $7,000 per hour higher than the F-16C/D.
Yet costs aren’t the only concern. There are also concerns with the plane’s performance and safety.
For example, some defense experts have questioned relying solely upon “short range” aircraft like the F-35 in future conflicts and have suggested reducing the number of F-35s ordered in favor of a longer range platform. Others have raised safety issues over the F-35’s reliance on a single engine versus the twin-engine F-16. The plane has been accused of being “heavy and sluggish” and possessing a “pitifully small payload for the money.” These problems showed themselves when, in 2008, two former RAND Corporation employees conducted simulated war games between the F-35 and the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter. The Russian fighter won!
There are also questions about the F-35’s capability of engaging modern air defenses. In an apparent acknowledgement of the problem, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin $450 million in 2012 to improve the F-35 electronic warfare systems and incorporate Israeli systems.
During evaluation flights, USAF test pilots have noted a lack of visibility from the F-35 cockpit, stating that the problem would lead to them being shot down in combat and leading one defense analyst to conclude that the F-35A “is flawed beyond redemption.” It was also noted that the plane’s current software is inadequate for even basic pilot training, that its ejection seat may fail causing pilot fatality, that its radar performs poorly, or not at all, and that its engine replacement takes an average of 52 hours, instead of the two hours specified.
A 2015 Pentagon report also found issues with the plane’s reliability and maintainability, significant fire risk due to vulnerability of its fuel tanks, concerns with wing drop that have yet to be resolved after 6 years, engine problems, problems with its software and problems with the F-35’s high-tech helmet. And even before the F-35 could be deployed, China unveiled a portable long-range surveillance radar system specifically designed to defeat stealth aircraft like the F-35.
As if all of these problems aren’t bad enough, the fighter’s technology has already been compromised. After sharing the F-35’s plans with our ally, Australia, last year it was determined that someone – likely China – had hacked Australia’s computers and downloaded the plans. Though the plane offered to Australia is not exactly like those intended for the US military, it’s close enough for concern.
Given the delays and cost overruns, would anyone really be surprised if China ended up deploying the fighter before we do?
To read even more about the F-35, visit Wikipedia.