Official support for the F-35 program has quickly eroded during the first three months of 2021. In the waning days of the Trump administration, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller called it a “piece of s..t.” The Air Force chief of staff, General Charles Brown Jr., admitted the F-35 would never be able to live up to its original purpose as an affordable, everyday fighter and attack aircraft. Most recently, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), a past proponent, said we should stop throwing money down the F-35 “rathole,” and that committee’s Readiness Subcommittee chair, Representative John Garamendi (D-CA)—also a previous supporter—called the program a “fiasco.”
Research and development and production costs on the F-35 program thus far total $177.6 billion, and at least another $283.4 billion is needed for future research and development, military construction, and production. While there are others in Congress who think we’ve invested too much in the program to be able to slow it down or make any changes, of the estimated $1.3 trillion needed just to operate the F-35, only 2% of the total 60-year cost has been expended up to now. That means there is more than $1 trillion yet to be spent to maintain and support the F-35. Adding this unexpended $1 trillion-plus in operating cost to the remaining $283.4 billion in production, research and development, and military construction cost makes a grand total of at least $1.3 trillion in total F-35 spending yet to come. The time to act on the F-35 is now, before still more hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are thrown down the “rathole.”
The possible shift is due to the now spreading realization in Washington, in light of the years of warnings, that the F-35 is too disappointing and costly to continue and that, given the vast sums yet to be spent on the $1.7 trillion program, it is not too late to pause and reassess, and perhaps dramatically alter, the F-35 program.
“The time to act on the F-35 is now, before still more hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are thrown down the rathole.”
Thus, the Project On Government Oversight recommends that Congress suspend all future F-35 procurement appropriations for all three variants unless the following occurs:
1. The Director, Operational Test & Evaluation declares that each F-35 variant—A, B and C—is fully combat effective and fully suitable for use in the hands of operational pilots and maintainers. The testing office’s finding must be detailed, as required by law, in a public “Beyond Low-Rate Initial Production Report” to Congress. The report is supposed to provide any additional information the testing director considers important. For the F-35, the report should include data on each variant’s demonstrated ability in realistic field conditions to generate a sortie rate of at least one and a half per tail number per day, on average, in sustained combat exercises of at least 30 days. In the past, the testing office’s reports have deemed equipment “partially” and even “potentially” effective or suitable. After almost 20 years of development, it is reasonable to expect each variant of the F-35 to have moved past “potentially” and “partially” effective to fully meet both its program requirements and whatever additional criteria the operational testing offices deems to be a valid and realistic combat criterion, as intended for operational, not developmental, testing.
2. The F-35A, B, and C variants have each reliably demonstrated superiority in multiple per mission trials, in air-to-air and air-to-ground mission exercises over aircraft the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy have selected to be replaced by the F-35. Such superiority has been promised by both DOD officials and contractors but has not been demonstrated in properly and objectively monitored and reported comparative test exercises. The exercises must be supervised by the operational testing office, which must report its findings in a detailed, unclassified report to Congress.
3. At this point, the F-35A cannot win a dogfight against a two-seater F-16 weighed down by wing tanks. And, assuming the Air Force continues to plan on the F-35A as a replacement for the A-10 for the close support mission, more than the perfunctory one week fly-off between those two aircraft is needed. The F-35B and C should also be tested against the F-18 in all missions performed.
4. The Government Accountability Office conducts and reports in writing to Congress an analysis of the above F-35 reports to confirm that they are complete and accurate.
Despite the massive amount of money spent for F-35 acquisitions, we are still getting an unfinished product. Additional funds are already being spent to fix design flaws and to complete development work on F-35s that were purchased before preliminary testing and development were completed. Moreover, the Government Accountability Office recently reported cost growth of nearly $4 billion, up from $10.9 billion to $14.4 billion, and a three-year schedule slip for planned upgrades beyond the currently approved configuration. Finally, POGO is aware of an estimate from DOD’s Capability Assessment and Program Evaluation office (CAPE) sent to Congress last year that the full cost of F-35 follow-on modernization will be from $17.9 to $22.9 billion, depending on whether program base year dollars (2012) or actual appropriations are counted.
A final warning on cost is also appropriate: These new total cost estimates, even though revised, assume that everything from here on out goes exactly as currently planned. That’s not likely to happen. For example, when operational testing for each of the three variants of the F-35 is finally finished at some point in the future, there may be additional costs arising from as yet unrevealed flaws. In addition, it remains unknown if the new F-35 support architecture, now known as Operational Data Integrated Network, or ODIN—to replace the failed Autonomic Logistics Information System—will work and what its final costs might be. As nightmarish as the F-35 cost story is today, it could get worse.
These costs are particularly outrageous given that they are for a fighter that loses in dogfights with a sluggish version of an F-16 and compares extremely poorly to the A-10 as a close air support aircraft for troops in combat.
As of March 2021, 365 F-35s have been delivered to the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, and 733 have been paid for, a remarkable number to be designated “low rate initial production.” These aircraft constitute a significant cohort, given the shriveled nature of the U.S. combat aviation inventory. There remain 1,737 F-35s to be bought in FY 2022 and beyond. It should be a straightforward proposition to suspend additional F-35 appropriations for further production until Congress has reliable certifications from the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation and GAO that the F-35 can perform fully effectively and suitably and at least nominally better than the aircraft it’s supposed to replace.
In many ways, even these recommendations may be too modest in requiring an operationally effective and suitable F-35 at any price. Perhaps we should instead demand these aircraft be delivered “at the price promised.”