Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The F-35 has become a classic boondoggle

I've written before about the problems of the F-35 Lightning II program. (Those six links are in chronological order - the last two are the most relevant.)

A report today in the Atlantic confirms that it's become nothing more or less than a classic boondoggle. Here's an extract.

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is an impressive aircraft: a fifth generation multirole fighter plane with stealth technology. It's also a symbol of everything that's wrong with defense spending in America.

. . .

The F-35 is designed to be the core tactical fighter aircraft for the U.S. military, with three versions for the Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps. Each plane clocks in at around $90 million.

. . .

Washington intends to buy 2,443, at a price tag of $382 billion.

Add in the $650 billion that the Government Accountability Office estimates is needed to operate and maintain the aircraft, and the total cost reaches a staggering $1 trillion.

In other words, we're spending more on this plane than Australia's entire GDP ($924 billion).

The F-35 is the most expensive defense program in history, and reveals massive cost overruns, a lack of clear strategic thought, and a culture in Washington that encourages incredible waste.

Money is pouring into the F-35 vortex. In 2010, Pentagon officials found that the cost of each plane had soared by over 50 percent above the original projections. The program has fallen years behind schedule, causing billions of dollars of additional expense, and won't be ready until 2016. An internal Pentagon report concluded that: "affordability is no longer embraced as a core pillar."

In January 2011, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a champion of the aircraft, voiced his frustration: "The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of restraint."

. . .

So where is the outrage at the F-35's outlandish cost?

Some just don't seem to care. When it comes to defense, Republicans are the champions of big government and massive expenditure. The F-35 is too big to fail.

At the same time, many Democrats keep quiet for fear of looking weak on defense--unless, like Senator Bernie Sanders, they're from Vermont.

Other politicians are bought off with pork. Defense suppliers are spread throughout dozens of states, giving everyone a reason to look the other way.

. . .

We used to be content to outspend Australia on aircraft. Now we literally spend Australia on aircraft.

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading. Another good reference is today's statement by Michael Sullivan, Director Acquisition and Sourcing Management of the Government Accounting Office, on the F-35 program (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format). Mr. Sullivan sums up:

After more than 9 years in development and 4 in production, the JSF program has not fully demonstrated that the aircraft design is stable, manufacturing processes are mature, and the system is reliable. Engineering drawings are still being released to the manufacturing floor and design changes continue at higher rates than desired. More changes are expected as testing accelerates. Test and production aircraft cost more and are taking longer to deliver than expected. Manufacturers are improving operations and implemented 8 of 20 recommendations from an expert panel, but have not yet demonstrated a capacity to efficiently produce at higher production rates. Substantial improvements in factory throughput and the global supply chain are needed.

Development testing is still early in demonstrating that aircraft will work as intended and meet warfighter requirements. About 4 percent of JSF capabilities have been completely verified by flight tests, lab results, or both. Only 3 of the extensive network of 32 ground test labs and simulation models are fully accredited to ensure the fidelity of results. Software development - essential for achieving about 80 percent of the JSF functionality - is significantly behind schedule as it enters its most challenging phase.

I fully agree with the author of the Atlantic's article. The F-35 has become an overpriced, underperforming dinosaur. Its cost is crippling other areas of the US defense budget, preventing other programs from receiving the funding they need. It's designed for a military and political environment that's long gone, and appears less than capable of standing up to many of the airborne threats it will confront during its service life.

I submit the USAF would be far better served to build more of the much more capable F-22 Raptor. A fighter-bomber version of this air superiority fighter could be developed at relatively low cost, or the more capable FB-22 bomber version could be resurrected. The F-22's mature production line would produce examples at a unit cost not much greater than that currently projected for the F-35. The USAF and US Navy could make up their numbers by buying more fourth-generation fighter-bombers for use in less sophisticated environments, leaving a fleet of several hundred F-22's to take on high-intensity threat environments. Such a fleet would save hundreds of billions of dollars compared to the cost of buying the planned total of F-35's. The growing sophistication and capability of UAV's also militates against an excessive investment in manned aircraft.

It's time to kill the F-35 boondoggle. Let's cancel this white elephant altogether!



Old NFO said...

The F-35 is TOO heavy for carrier ops, and that's without all the required mods... We'd be better off building more Turkeys than buying the F-35...

perlhaqr said...

Or do a new evolution of the F-18. Surely that's cheaper than designing and tooling up for a new plane from scratch?

Or hell, for the price we spent on all this crap, we could have done both.

WV: "imatedi" -- I... I am not! Well, maybe a little. :)

Geodkyt said...

F35 Program Office has successfully managed to get any and all increased costs to operate their aircraft (such as developing brand new nonskid for carriers, new radomes for antennas the F35 STOVL will overfly, etc.) that are required ONLY becuase of F35, classified as "not-program related".

As one engineer said about the fact that teh aircraft just added billions of dollars to the cost of naval aviation in the mods needed to TWO classes of ships, "That's a Fleet problem, not ours. That's what in-serv (in-sevice modifications) funds are for."

Lemon Stand said...

The only win-win solution I can see is to kill the F-35 and use the technology 'learned' to enhance proven aircraft without having to 'mod' fleet, field or runway. (and do it quickly enough to avoid having to learn Chinese as the new national language)

SordidPanda said...

The "Joint" portion of the JSF must be what they are smoking.

The only aircraft that the Air Force and Navy ever agreed on was the F4. And there are very very good reasons for the Navy and Air Force to fly different planes.

I was very disappointed when the F22 contract was canceled, because the flyaway cost for one of those is much less than the projected cost of an F35.

However, the international nature of the F35 means that we would have to tell our allies "sorry, we can't do this, costs too much" but with the state of finances in the UK I don't think they would have a problem with that.

Angus McThag said...

The USAF and USN agreed on the A-7 too!