We still can’t afford the F-35

The troubled F-35 combat aircraft program has turned a corner.  At least that’s what program advocates claimed last Tuesday at a hearing before the Airland Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Program head Lt. Col. Christopher Bogdan asserted that “the program is making slow and steady progress on all fronts.”

These claims are based more in wishful thinking than reality. Between exorbitant costs and questionable capabilities, the F-35 math just doesn’t add up. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a plane that won’t advance our national security, at the expense of more important defense programs, just doesn’t make sense.

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F-35 boosters have routinely cited two key pieces of evidence to back up their upbeat assertions. The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer claims that the project’s astonishing $1 trillion in lifetime operating costs is coming down slightly. And the Government Accountability Office  (GAO) recently repeated Pentagon claims that the projected procurement cost for buying over 2,400 of the planes will be “only” $332 billion, a reduction of about 3% from prior estimates. 

There are two problems with these optimistic projections.  First, they aren’t believable.  As long-time defense budget analyst Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight has noted, the GAO figures on alleged reductions in the price of the F-35 are based on “rejiggering inflation numbers” and “lesser hardware requirements” accompanied by claims of cost reductions at the subcontractor level that have not been verified.

Second, and most importantly, even if the new claims of a “cheaper” F-35 were true, it would still be the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon.  That would include spending an average of $12.6 billion per year between now and 2037, a pace that the GAO notes will require the Air Force to “increase funds steeply over the next few years” while posing “long-term affordability risks.”  This is particularly true because the Air Force also wants to develop a new long-range bomber, buy substantial quantities of new refueling tankers, and purchase a next generation of unmanned aerial systems.  The money just isn’t there to do all of these things at once.  Something will have to give.

It would be one thing if the F-35 promised value for money.  But continuing problems with issues like night vision, bulkhead and rib cracks, and instability in flight raise serious questions about whether the F-35 will ever be able to perform as advertised.  In fact, a recent report from the Pentagon’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering predicts that the F-35 will conclude its development phase without being able to carry out 40 percent of its originally envisioned operational capabilities.

There is also a real danger that the F-35 will be an extremely fragile aircraft, spending more time in maintenance than it does in the air.  A January 2014 report by the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester found that the aircraft was available for use only 37 percent of the time, less than half of the program’s goal of 75 percent.

The biggest technical issue with the F-35 program, both in terms of performance problems and potential cost growth, is software development.  There are still serious deficiencies in everything from the high-tech helmet that is supposed to guide the pilot’s actions in flight to the automated logistics system that is supposed to help curb production and maintenance costs.

All of the above begs the most important question of all: is the F-35 relevant to the most important security challenges of the 21st century?  Even if it were capable of doing everything it was originally intended to do, the F-35 would be an inferior choice for any of its proposed missions. And some of those alleged missions may never materialize.  For example, it’s hard to picture U.S. combat aircraft engaged in aerial dogfights with China or any other adversary in any foreseeable military scenario. 

Last but not least, the F-35 is irrelevant for addressing the greatest threats we face, from cyber-attacks to the spread of nuclear weapons to the growing devastation caused by climate change.

The Obama administration and the Congress should think twice before throwing hundreds of billions of dollars at an overpriced, underperforming aircraft of questionable value in defending the country.  A few small shifts in cost estimates one way or the other won’t change that underlying reality.

Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.