Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Here’s What 60 Minutes Didn’t Tell You About the F-35

The millions of viewers who tuned into 60 Minutes Sunday may have gotten the impression that, despite being billions over budget and almost a decade behind schedule, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is ultimately necessary to maintain U.S. air superiority. That’s an unsurprising conclusion, given that all of the individuals interviewed in the story work either for the federal government or for Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the F-35. 60 Minutes’ producers broke a basic lesson of Journalism 101 when they failed to interview anyone who would tell the other side of the F-35 story.

Fortunately, a new video from Brave New Films does just that. The Jet that Ate the Pentagon, released along with a new website, explains how the F-35 became a $1.5 trillion burden on American taxpayers. Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, is featured in the video. He answered a few of our questions about how and why the F-35 program got so out of control.

POGO: Why are you focused on informing the public about the F35?

Wheeler: It is essential that the public be aware of the many serious and fundamental problems in the F-35 program because the Pentagon, the White House and Congress have all failed to do their jobs.

In the 1990s the Pentagon’s aviation bureaucracy in the Clinton administration put together a plan for the Joint Strike Fighter that was bound to fail at great cost. The building’s senior leadership—Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, acquisition Czar William Perry and others--failed to recognize the fundamental problems in both the physical design of the F-35 and its buy-first, test-later acquisition plan. In fact, they willfully advocated those horrendous ideas. Then, both the White House and Congress did nothing but cheer the whole thing on. They were warned by some experts, and they ignored the warnings.

Because the people who claim to be our national security leadership failed so miserably in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations to recognize the problems, let alone take any appropriate action, it became necessary in the mid-2000s to raise the volume of the complaints and make the public aware.

In a functioning democratic system, public pressure on the politicians in the Pentagon, the White House and Congress should force them to find a solution. It remains to be seen, however, just how functional our system is: the public now is far more fully aware of the many and serious problems in the F-35, but there is no sign yet that any real action will be taken by the national security decision-makers. I fear that Congress is too fixated on the pork the F-35 brings to states and congressional districts; the White House is scared of the tough-minded politics needed to reverse course on the F-35, and most, but not all, Pentagon managers are too happy to keep on drinking—and passing out—the F-35 Kool Aid.

Nonetheless, making the public aware of the issues and its complaining to decision makers in Washington is our only viable way to bring this disaster to an end.

POGO: What are some of the F35s most shocking failures?

Wheeler: The most stunning failure in the F-35 is the level of complexity and contradiction in the basic design. Starting out as a plan to make a short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft supersonic (two inherently contradictory design characteristics), it only went further downhill after that. They then made it a multi-role aircraft, piling on the additional contradictory characteristics of an air to air fighter and an air to ground bomber; then they made it “stealth” making even fatter the aerodynamic design and making it all more complex by an order of magnitude. And finally, they made it multi-service adding further contradictory complexities demanded separately by the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. All this insanity made high cost inherent to the design, just as it also made low performance (performing many roles, all of them poorly) intrinsic.

Thus, the most shocking thing is that some think the solution is to cancel the Marine Corps and or the Navy’s version of this aircraft, but not the Air Force’s: ignoring all the basic characteristics of all three versions, these faux critics opt for a politically convenient non-solution which will mean that our Air Force and any remaining foreign purchasers will be strapped with an incompetent design of an astoundingly expensive aircraft.

That to me is the most shocking thing of all: after all the lessons, some of those pretending to be critics, simply don’t, or refuse to, get it.

POGO: Do you think the story of the F35 is a paradigm of larger issues in the American government?

Wheeler: Absolutely yes! The obsessive complexity of the physical design and the buy-it-then-fly-it acquisition plan are absolutely typical of American weapons acquisition. Those characteristics don’t occur by accident. Technologists who consider combat lessons an afterthought control the beginning design, and advocates in industry, Congress and the Pentagon seek to commit the entire government to the program by spending $billions and $billions before any empirical data becomes available from testing to show what the actual cost and performance are. They call it “concurrency,” but it is really bait and switch political engineering. Chuck Spinney has written about this many times, especially in “Defense Power Games.”

POGO: How has Lockheed Martin been able to continue with the program, despite the cost overruns and delays?

Wheeler: Lockheed-Martin cannot design effectively performing, affordable combat aircraft, but they are without peer in designing a greasy plan to foist the aircraft on the US and multiple foreign buyers. I am in awe of their skill in doing that; they successfully convince otherwise rational people to ignore empirical data, to believe that press releases spout biblical truth and to embrace new promises in the face of scores of broken ones. Those are awesome powers.

POGO: What do you hope the video will add to the F35 conversation?

Wheeler: The video covers a lot of territory in just a few minutes, but people who want to check the data behind the many statements in the video will find there are piles of evidence to back them up. I hope people do exactly that: check on the facts. Then, armed with the data, they may want to make noise—however they so choose—to give the politicians in Congress, the White House and the Pentagon a choice: Do the right thing on the F-35 or be replaced.