Kill the F-35

As the costs of the F-35 continue to mount, David Axe argues that it’s time to pull the plug.

The Pentagon is expected to announce additional delays and cost increases for Lockheed Martin’s monopolistic F-35 stealth fighter. Launched in the 1990s as an “affordable,” widely used replacement for the F-16, F/A-18 and other aircraft, in recent years the F-35 has become exactly the opposite. Sales estimates of up to 4,000 jets — more than half of them for American forces — seem increasingly fantastical as governments look to cut defense costs. Increasing development delays only make it easier for customers to cancel or defer their planned orders. With the order book looking thinner and thinner, pricey development gets spread out over fewer jets. Instead of costing the same as or less than today’s $50 million F/A-18E/F, the average F-35 will be around twice as expensive, per airplane, until very late in a projected thirty year production run.

For that reason, it’s time to pull the plug. That’s right: kill the F-35. It’s the surest way to save the Pentagon’s fighter fleets from slowly wasting away.

Last summer, the Pentagon tried to deny, then ultimately admitted, that F-35 development had run into serious management and technical obstacles. They problems cascaded throughout the program. This spring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a major reorganization of the program, firing the general in charge, delaying full rate production by a year to 2015 and adding $3 billion to development. Now Bloomberg is reporting that the Pentagon will push back full production to 2016 and add an extra $5 billion for R&D. The news comes just weeks after the United Kingdom, previously the biggest projected F-35 customer after the US, reduced its anticipated buy to just fifty or so copies, down from 138.

Critics have a word for this cycle of increasing cost and decreasing orders. It’s called the “death spiral.” It’s how the US Air Force has ended up buying just 187 F-22 fighters, several years late and at a cost of more than $300 million per jet, instead of the 381 the air service said it needed. If we allow the F-35 to continue spiraling, it will gobble up essentially all available funding for tactical airplanes for the next thirty years, without delivering the number of jets we need to keep up our fleets. Plus, the F-35 program as designed directs most of the Pentagon’s fighter budget to just one big manufacturer, basically starving the others. That’s bad for the American defense industry.

Kill it

It’s time to kill the F-35 as a production program and redirect most of its roughly $300 billion future cost into other, more cost effective aircraft designs spread over a greater number of manufacturers. Taxpayers have already spent around $50 billion on the F-35, but that’s not a compelling reason to maintain the program in its current form. Rather, the F-35 should become strictly a prototyping and technology-development program, rather than a large-scale production program — much in the same way the Pentagon cut the Navy’s $5 billion per copy DDG-1000 “stealth” destroyer to just three hulls, meant mostly for experimentation. We’ve paid for a hundred F-35s. Let’s put them to good use refining concepts and technology. But we shouldn’t buy more of them

The timing is right. America still has four other, active manned fighter production lines, plus drone programs, that can deliver the same or more capability and more aircraft, all at lower overall cost, and faster. The impact on foreign allies will be minimal. The implications for weapons manufacturers can be mitigated by reinvesting the savings. My proposal to kill off the F-35 is not about cutting American defense spending or reducing the size or capability of American fighter fleets. Rather, ending the F-35 now would result in a stronger military and healthier industry.

The big question is, does Gates have the fortitude to dismantle the biggest weapons program in history? Despite Gates’ record as a boondoggle killer — he curtailed the DDG-1000 plus the Army’s $200 billion Future Combat Systems — it’s an open question whether he has the clout and foresight to do the same with the F-35. To be sure, the F-35 will be one of Gates’ final acquisitions challenges: he’s expected to step down in 2011. The F-35 decision could be his most lasting legacy, if he can muster the courage to kill it. Or, if he concedes to more delays and cost increases, the F-35 could prove to be Gates’ biggest regret.

The American air fleet need new fighters. The Navy and Marines have several hundred first-generation F/A-18s expected to age out in just a few years; most of the Air Force’s F-15Cs and F-16s will be worn out in a decade or so. To maintain the existing, overall fleet of some 3,000 tactical fighters, the Pentagon must buy at least a hundred fighters a year, starting now. And it must do so within existing budgets, as economic conditions make a topline increase highly unlikely.

There’s just one way to accomplish this. End the F-35 as a production program. The Pentagon should spend a few billion dollars over coming years experimenting with the F-35 airframes and systems, using the hundred jets we’ve already paid for. But plans to buy 2,400 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marines must stop. That would free up at least $12 billion a year immediately, and more down the road. Gates should reinvest that money in new and existing aircraft. Specifically, he should:

  • Continue F-22 production at a rate of twenty per year, at a cost of around $4 billion annually. Add, say, two hundred planes to current fleet. I admit I supported Gates’ earlier plan to truncate the F-22 in favor of the F-35, but circumstances have changed. A roughly four hundred strong F-22 fleet could provide air defense and defense suppression capability for the Air Force, enabling bigger fleets of less advanced jets to bomb and patrol with relative impunity. Extended F-22 production would help keep Lockheed happy in lieu of F-35 production.
  • Replace F-15Cs with stealthier F-15 Silent Eagles, available from Boeing today. The Pentagon should negotiate to buy twenty per year for less than $2 billion, for a total of two hundred. Alongside two hundred existing F-15Es, the newer F-15SEs would be capable of air superiority and ground attack within airspace sanitized by the F-22.
  • Buy 400 F-16E/Fs from Lockheed for United States-based air patrols and, in wartime, “bomb truck” duties alongside older F-16s. The new F-16s can be had for just $50 million a copy. Forty per year for $2 billion would recapitalize the US Air National Guard before old-model F-16s age out. Between the F-22, F-15SE and F-16E/F, the Air Force would get eight hundred new fighters in ten years, for the same price as continuing the F-35. The risk is smaller; the return is faster on the same overall investment; we lose no capabilities. Plus, the Air Force fighter fleet would remain at its current size of around 2,000 jets.
  • For the Navy, sustain Boeing’s F/A-18E/F production at $2 billion per year for forty jets, while adding new technology and weapons. The sea service should also boost investment in Northrop Grumman’s X-47 armed drone, or the armed Sea Avenger from General Atomics as a less risky alternative. For that, figure $1 billion annually. That funding would help keep Northrop and General Atomics viable as warplane makers. In sum, the Navy gets enough planes on a sustained basis to avoid depopulating its carrier decks — and adds a new, long range capability in the form of an armed drone.
  • Direct the Marines to buy new F-18s: twenty per year should suffice, at a cost of around $1 billion. That would mean eventually surrendering fixed-wing operations from assault ships, currently performed by the AV-8B jump jet and originally slated for the vertical landing F-35B model. Ending jump jet ops does mean giving up a capability, but it’s a capability of marginal value. To replace jump jets on the assault ships, the Marines could add a few attack helicopters to the existing AH-1Z program, at marginal cost. Navy and Marine fighters flying from large carriers would cover beach landings.
  • On the fringes, allow F-35 testing to continue, strictly for tech and concept development. Findings could fold into next generation fighter programs starting in a decade or so. Around the same time, the Pentagon should start buying new bombers — something that might not be possible with the F-35 crowding the budget.
  • Encourage American allies to replace their planned F-35 fleets with Eurofighter Typhoons, Dassault Rafales, Saab Gripens, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s or light fighters from a range of manufacturers. As with the Marines, the only customers that will lose capabilities are those planning on using F-35Bs from assault ships. That includes the Italians, for sure, plus maybe Spain and South Korea. Again, this represents a capability of marginal value: certainly nothing to justify continued investment in an increasingly wasteful program.

This story first appeared on War is Boring, November 1, 2010.