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Analysis

Has the Pentagon Learned from the F-35 Debacle?

(Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO; Photos: Getty Images)

The Air Force’s top civilian leader says the F-35 program taught everyone how not to buy a fighter jet and vows not to repeat the mistakes that turned history’s most expensive weapon program into an absolute boondoggle. While it is refreshing to hear an official acknowledge some of the fundamental problems with the F-35 program, no one at the top levels wants to acknowledge all of them. Even worse, none seem willing to question the basic premise of a manned fighter in the age of long-range precision fires and integrated air defense networks.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall says the government will acquire the intellectual property for the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) fighter when the service awards a development contract for the program in 2024. This seems to be the biggest lesson learned by the government from the F-35 program: Pentagon officials had failed to include the transfer of the intellectual property from Lockheed Martin as part of the original 2001 development contract, a failure that has led to a series of problems ever since.

Because the government does not control the data rights for the F-35 program, the uniformed maintainers can’t access the technical data needed to do much of the maintenance work for the F-35. Nor can the government provide companies with access to that technical information. As a result, Lockheed Martin has an absolute monopoly on the lucrative sustainment contracts for the program.

Not acquiring the data from the beginning of the program wasn’t an oversight on the part of government contracting officers, but rather a deliberate decision based on an acquisition fad at the time known as Total System Performance Responsibility. Under the scheme, the government effectively surrendered its responsibility to maintain the equipment purchased with taxpayer dollars to the contractors. The contractors had little incentive to design simple and easy-to-maintain weapons since their business model centered around long-term sustainment contracts for their products.

Sustainment contracts are quite lucrative. Pentagon officials awarded Lockheed Martin up to $6.6 billion in 2021 to support the F-35 fleet for two years, through 2023. These contracts will grow even larger as more aircraft are delivered.

Kendall also vowed to avoid the excess concurrency, or the overlap between development and production, that has plagued the F-35 program. This isn’t a surprising pledge since he called concurrency “acquisition malpractice” in 2012 while serving as the Air Force’s top acquisition official. Producing weapons systems before the design has been completed and validated through rigorous testing means that services get saddled with systems and vehicles riddled with design flaws and lacking full combat capabilities. Weapons purchased toward the beginning of the process are underdeveloped and have to be retrofitted to correct design flaws discovered in later phases of testing, making those earlier weapons much more expensive than those produced after testing is completed.

This is the case with the F-35. The services have purchased more than 530 aircraft, and all of the F-35s delivered to date will need to be retrofitted to correct the design flaws and to add combat capabilities developed after they were built. The Government Accountability Office estimates the costs to upgrade immature F-35s will be at least $1.4 billion.

If Kendall follows through on his commitment to avoid those two acquisition traps, that would be a significant development. But he failed to address the other major drivers of cost increases and schedule delays, most notably excessive complexity and the closely related political engineering that has derailed so many acquisition programs in the past.

Kendall raised some eyebrows testifying in front of the House Armed Services Committee in 2022 when he said each NGAD fighter would cost “multiple hundreds of millions of dollars.” Little is known about the new program at this point since nearly everything about it is surrounded in secrecy, but the high price certainly suggests the aircraft will be loaded with every bit of technology designers can imagine.

Rather than undertaking yet another incredibly complex and expensive fighter program, a better alternative would be to improve our own air defense capabilities to deal with an adversary’s air forces.

Each individual component added to a weapons system, particularly speculative technology that has yet to be fully designed, is one that can increase costs by dragging out the development process. Navy leaders learned this lesson the hard way with their latest aircraft carrier: The USS Gerald R. Ford’s design included 23 new technologies, several of which had not been fully developed before construction of the ship began. The work to finish the design and the integration of those technologies increased the ship’s costs by nearly 30% and delayed the ship’s first deployment by four years.

Adding so much new technology serves a political purpose unrelated to any combat function. Each gadget added to a weapon needs to be built somewhere and so becomes a new subcontract to the whole endeavor. Spreading these subcontracts around the country guarantees support in Congress. As more congressional districts have a piece of the acquisition action, more members of Congress will have a vested political interest in seeing the program continue. The F-35 program takes this practice, sometimes called political engineering, to an extreme. Lockheed Martin’s F-35 website includes a page dedicated to the program’s economic impact: An interactive map shows suppliers in 47 states.

Discussion of the NGAD program comes at a time when the Air Force continues to develop the F-35 and B-21 programs. The F-35 program remains mired in the development phase nearly 22 years after Lockheed Martin won the contract in 2001. Costs of that program continue to grow as the development process remains unfinished. And new problems continue to arise. The Government Accountability Office reported on May 30, 2023, that the F-35’s engine lacks the ability to properly manage the heat generated by the aircraft’s systems. That increases the engine’s wear, and auditors now estimate the extra maintenance will add $38 billion to the program’s life-cycle costs.

Pentagon officials staged a triumphant roll-out of the other major Air Force program, the B-21, in December 2022 at the Palmdale, California, plant. The program is currently expected to cost $203 billion. Officials gave flowery speeches touting the bomber’s amazing capabilities, as if they were speaking in front of a finished product. The B-21 has yet to achieve its first flight, so they have no idea what they really have. Once the aircraft begins flight tests and the later developmental and operational tests, officials will discover just how much work they have left to do. The testing process will reveal numerous design flaws. Fixing those design flaws will be a costly process, but until the testing process is well underway, it is impossible to know just how much costs for the program will grow.

To get some idea of what’s in store for B-21 program costs, it’s possible to look back and see how costs have grown in earlier programs. Pentagon leaders originally estimated it would cost $200 billion to develop and purchase approximately 3,000 F-35s. Today, the development and acquisition costs for a fleet of 2,456 F-35s are expected to total $412 billion. The predecessor for the B-21 fared even worse. When the B-2 program began in earnest in 1981, Air Force officials planned on purchasing 133 bombers for $32.7 billion. The program ended up being capped at only 21 aircraft, at a cost of $44.2 billion.

Before defense policymakers deal with the details of acquisition policy, cost overruns, and schedule delays, however, they should tackle the fundamental rationale of the NGAD.

The most troubling aspect of the NGAD program is the basic assumption that a manned fighter designed to fly deep into enemy airspace is the right way to gain air supremacy and strike targets on the ground. The threat posed by modern air defenses underpins many policy decisions today. It is used as justification to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building stealth aircraft like the B-2, F-35, B-21, and soon the NGAD. Air Force leaders continuously rationalize their efforts to retire the A-10 based on the still unproven assertion that the aircraft can’t survive in defended airspace.

It is easy to understand why Air Force leaders view manned aircraft as the solution to the problem of controlling the skies. Their entire professional careers are based on the idea that “airpower” is the means to secure military ends. Throwing flashy and expensive aircraft at problems is the hallmark of their corporate culture. But just because Air Force leaders think that way doesn’t mean every defense policy decision-maker should follow suit.

A few questions must be asked before the Pentagon fully commits to the NGAD program. Are officials looking at the essential problem the right way? Are there existing alternatives that should be pursued instead?

Rather than undertaking yet another incredibly complex and expensive fighter program, a better alternative would be to improve our own air defense capabilities to deal with an adversary’s air forces. The United States has demonstrated its ability to design effective surface-to-air missiles. Defense officials are touting the success of the Patriot air defense system in Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers reportedly used a Patriot battery to shoot down a Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile launched to destroy the Patriots. If the real problem U.S. officials are trying to solve is how to defend American forces from enemy aircraft, improving and expanding ground-based defenses should be made a higher priority. You don’t need to gain air superiority right up to the enemy’s capital to be effective. You need to have local air superiority where friendly forces are operating. If the problem is how to penetrate an adversary’s air defenses, many solutions other than manned aircraft already exist, with several new solutions on the horizon.

There are plenty of reasons to question the rationale behind not just the NGAD, but also the B-21 program. Unmanned aircraft have been used effectively for the past two decades. Standoff munitions launched from aircraft flying beyond the enemy’s air defenses are also a viable alternative. The U.S. Army is in the process of developing five long-range, precision fires systems that will be capable of striking targets up to 1,000 miles away. Cruise missiles currently in the inventory and emerging hypersonic missiles under development now mean there are plenty of alternatives to manned aircraft to strike distant targets.

Before another dollar is spent to move the NGAD effort forward, civilian and military officials should conduct a robust analysis of alternatives that don’t start with a manned aircraft as a fundamental assumption. Just because manned fighters have been the solution in the past doesn’t mean they are the right solution moving forward. Now is the time to figure that out before the Pentagon undertakes yet another long and likely painful acquisition program.