The F-35 tells everything that's broken in the Pentagon

It’s official: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a “rathole” of taxpayer money, something defense experts already knew — at least those without dubious ties to the military industrial blob. Now the House Armed Services Committee chairman has joined the ranks of the outraged, saying that when he thinks about the F-35, he thinks about “failure on a massive freaking scale.”

The F-35 is an allegory for everything that’s broken in our Department of Defense, which receives more money than the rest of the federal interagency, combined. In fact, we spend more on our armed forces than the next 10 biggest militaries in the world, combined. What are we getting for our tax dollars? Unfortunately, the F-35. 

Budgets are moral documents because they do not lie. The F-35 is the most expensive weapon in history, with a projected lifetime cost of $1.7 trillion. That’s more than Russia’s GDP, all spent on a single-seat plane. In fact, if this aircraft were a country, its GDP would rank 11th in the world, ahead of Saudi Arabia. Buying one costs around $110 million a copy, nearly double the price of a Boeing 737-600 airliner. F-35s are also expensive to fly. Each hour in the air costs $44,000, more than twice the cost of the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and F/A-18 Super Hornet. 

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The irrationality of the F-35 goes beyond the price tag — the plane is superfluous. It was devised as a flying Swiss Army knife that could meet the needs of the Air Force, Navy, Marines and Army. Instead, it proves the adage that a camel is a horse designed by committee. It is true that the F-35 can engage in dogfights, drop bombs and spy — just not well. Older aircraft remain better than F-35s at all these tasks. Dedicated bombers can fly farther with larger payloads. The A-10 Thunderbolt, an aircraft introduced in 1977, is better at ground support missions.

Astonishingly, the F-35 cannot dogfight, the crux of any fighter jet. According to test pilots, the F-35 is “substantially inferior” to the 40-year-old F-15 fighter jet in mock air battles. The F-35 could not turn or climb fast enough to hit an enemy plane or dodge enemy gunfire. Similarly, the F-35 struggled to get a clean shot at a 1980s-vintage F-16. The older aircraft easily maneuvered behind the F-35 for a clear shot, even sneaking up on the “stealth” jet. Despite the F-35s vaunted abilities, it was blown out of the sky in multiple tests. 

Those who live by technology die by it too. Unsurprisingly, the F-35’s 8 million lines of code are buggy, as are the 24 million lines running the aircraft’s maintenance and logistics software on the ground. Sometimes pilots have to press Ctrl+Alt+Delete while in flight to reboot the multimillion-dollar radar. The F-35 computer code, government auditors say, is “as complicated as anything on earth.” What can be coded can also be hacked, another vulnerability for the F-35.

Hacked or not, buggy computer code grounds aircraft, as does the perpetual shortage of spare parts and critical design flaws that can, for example, melt the plane in flight. Currently, the F-35 fleet is receiving a projected $16 billion software upgrade and other components that are already two years behind schedule and $1.5 billion over budget. The plane’s builder, Lockheed Martin, claims that it could reduce problems — but only if it’s awarded an exclusive maintenance contract. Eisenhower would be spinning in his grave. Or, as a former Pentagon chief weapons buyer put it, the F-35 is “acquisitions malpractice.”    

As a war machine, the F-35 is already obsolete junk. The measure of any weapon’s value is its utility. The United States has been at war continuously since Sept. 11, 2001, yet the F-35 has flown zero combat missions. Zero. When I was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, we would say: “That dog don’t hunt.” Perhaps sensitive to the F-35’s disgraceful war record, in 2018 the Pentagon sent a few on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq to notch up combat cred. Never mind that their help comes 15 years too late; the super-expensive F-35 was not designed to take out a weapons cache or a terrorist on a moped. Also, as any grunt will tell you, it’s not “combat” if the enemy can’t shoot back. If engine failure is the biggest threat to survival, then the F-35 might as well be flying over Kansas. Nor is this super-weapon deterring Russian, Chinese or Iranian expansionism.

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The F-35 is a hanger queen. As of January, the F-35 was still struggling to meet its goal mission-capable rate, which is the percentage of aircraft that can meet at least one assigned mission. Only 69 percent met the threshold, well short of the military’s longstanding 80 percent goal. For some reason, Congress wants to buy hundreds more, and make our allies do the same. Not every ally is happy about it.

Given all the headaches, the Air Force is quietly considering alternatives to the $1.7 trillion flying lemon. But it’s time to think bigger. There has not been a strategic dogfight since the Korean War, so why are more fighter jets needed — especially manned ones? We already possess the best Air Force — and military — in the world. We have enjoyed combat overmatch against all our enemies for 70 years, yet we have not won a major war since 1945. If we are honest, something is wrong with our strategic IQ, and it’s not something the F-35 can fix.

We do not need more exquisite weapon systems, such as the F-35, that are useless in modern war and cost the GDP of large nations. Instead, we need other things: a higher strategic IQ, savvier diplomacy, and the ability to fight wars “beneath the threshold of war.” Today, some of the best weapons do not fire bullets, so let’s invest there. For example, we should achieve “information overmatch” against disinformation superpowers like Russia, Iran and China. This is not a military mission alone, and we need to fund other departments that are crucial to maintaining American leadership abroad. Cutting the F-35 would be a good start.  

Sean McFate is the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win — Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a professor at Georgetown University and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. Follow him on Twitter @seanmcfate.