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Wheeler’s Dogfight with the F-35

F-35 at Night

This F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

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Winslow Wheeler, who famously described the F-35 as the “Jet that ate the Pentagon,” spoke with National Public Radio (NPR) for a two-part series on the over-priced and underperforming F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter Program (JSF).

Wheeler explained that Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the jet, uses a pricing vocabulary that masks costs. “Flyaway costs, non-recurring and recurring costs, and lots of gobbledygook, and they’ll say that comes to a number like $60-$70 million dollars. And, it’s complete baloney,” said Wheeler.

See more of Winslow Wheeler's work at the Straus Military Reform Project page.

While each F-35 is not quite the most expensive fighter jet ever—that notoriety goes to the F-22 Raptors, which cost upwards of $678 million apiece—the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program ever, with the total cost to buy and operate all F-35’s estimated to be more than $1.5 trillion.

Despite this exorbitant cost, Wheeler told NPR, the plane is underperforming because its varied requirements force it to make compromises that result in a plane that is mediocre at everything.

Peter Goon, a defense expert with Air Power Australia, agreed that the JSF was woefully deficient. This is particularly problematic, Goon told NPR, because foreign militaries are presenting capabilities “far superior to the JSF.”

The spiraling costs and performance issues led the Canadian government to reconsider purchasing the F-35. But, the Pentagon has remained stubbornly undeterred, awarding $4.8 billion in new F-35 contracts to Lockheed Martin in late December. This contract award comes amidst strained relations between the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin, which, according to a top Pentagon official, are “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

POGO recommends cancelling the more expensive and problematic variants of the F-35 and replacing them with proven aircraft that cost less than half as much as the F-35.

But, Wheeler argues even that isn’t enough. As he wrote in Foreign Policy, “There is only one thing to do with the F-35: Junk it. America’s air forces deserve a much better aircraft, and the taxpayers deserve a much cheaper one. The dustbin awaits.”

Image by U.S. Air Force.

By: Ben Freeman, Ph. D.
Investigator, POGO

ben freeman At the time of publication, Ben Freeman was an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Ben's work focused on national security and the influence of foreign lobbying on the U.S.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: Defense, Joint Strike Fighter, Wasteful Defense Spending

Authors: Ben Freeman, Ph. D.

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