Skip to Main Content

Wheeler’s Dogfight with the F-35

F-35 at Night

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

Our Tabke Box

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.

Submitted by krypton at: January 11, 2013
What is new is that they're suggesting the cheapest course of action is to cancel the program. Can you really believe anything the USAF is saying about it? Do you think the allies who planned to purchase it-assuming it would arrive years ago- will ever listen to us again? They'll blame us. Take the money out of LMC's hide. It'd been like asking tor an Audi A-8 and being handed a Lada.
Submitted by Magginkat at: January 10, 2013
I am no expert on any kind of air craft but I have read enough about the F-35 to know that it's a royal ripoff of U.S. taxpayers. As for the Pentagon budget, that thing has been out of control for quite some time and when the U.S.'s most unqualified president was allowed to lie us into two wars to benefit his buddies and other atrocities that budget went sky high and has stayed there. It should be cut in half and that could be done by eliminating the massive waste.
Submitted by Dfens at: January 7, 2013
The time to cancel the F-35 was during development. Now that it is ready for production POGO should be on the side of producing the airplane. After all, the contractor makes the same 10% profit on design and construction, and obviously there are more risks in the construction phase than in design. It follows, then, that if POGO really wanted to stick it to Lockheed, they'd encourage the production of the F-35. After all paper airplanes will not protect this nation from its enemies, only real airplanes will. It is sad that POGO continues to play into the hands of the defense contractors when it comes to calling for the canceling of programs in the production phase. I would think they would be more interested in doing what is best for the US taxpayer and less interested in doing what is best for the military-industrial complex.
Submitted by Hippocanthus at: January 5, 2013
I don't get it. One investigator writes great praise of the work of a (more senior) colleague. And this becomes a blog post. Can't the more junior investigator do something more valuable with his time?
Submitted by Skyhawk maintainer at: January 4, 2013
This is the very reason a single aircraft to do every job is not the answer. Would you use a Corvette as a moving van? Conventional strike aircraft have thick wings, fly slower than fighters and in general are not considered "sexy," which was the reason the Air Force almost axed the A-10 Warthog before it saw duty in Daddy Bush's short war. As a Veteran US Naval Aviation Electrician with experience on the A-4F Skyhawk (we need more designs like that) and the A-7B/E Corsair II, the fighter attack concept should be scrapped. Our pilots were all graduates of the Naval Fighter Weapons School and Vietnam Veterans who could fight. We took our A-7Bs to Hill AFB, UT and they taught F-16 trainees that an old bird could still be considered a threat. The students had the idea that once their target was in the "box," it was theirs. Don't believe it! We took 4 A-7s with us to Hill and one mission, our pilots came back laughing and one of us was able to stop long enough to tell us about the exchange between the AF trainees. One of them screamed into the mike, "look out, there's A-7s all over the sky!"

Leave A Comment

Enter this word: Change

Related Posts

Browse POGOBlog by Topic

POGO on Facebook

Latest Podcast

Podcast; Social Media, Internet Provides Opportunities, Challenges for Lawmakers

The Congressional Management Foundation offers the Gold Mouse Awards annually to members of Congress who make the most of the opportunity the digital world offers them. POGO spoke with members of Rep. Mike Honda's communications team about their award.