Holding the Government Accountable

A High-Altitude Look at the F-35

New report raises old questions about Swiss Army knife fighter

Most every boy, sometime before girls distract him, is amazed by a friend who has a Swiss Army knife. All of a sudden, his once-cherished two-bladed jackknife has been replaced in his mind’s eye by his pal’s hefty red-sided gimcrack. It’s outfitted, not only with blades for whittling and mumblety-peg, but a gallimaufry of other tools, among them a screwdriver, saw, nail file and can opener.

But by the time the young man involved is old enough to use the knife’s corkscrew to open a bottle of cheap wine (acquired legally, to share with a friend), he has learned that cramming a toolkit into single tool leads to compromises that dulls its premise.

What we’re talking about here is building a flying version of that Swiss Army knife. And the Pentagon is no more immune to the premise of that promise than a teen-age lad.

Indeed, the U.S. military is often a lot like a teen-age boy (and we’re not talking about sexual longings common to some members of both groups, although Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 to 2005, once told me that “there's always this sexual drive for a new airplane on the part of each service—persistent, urgent and natural.”)

That’s why Dan Grazier’s new F-35 report for the Project on Government Oversight’s Straus Military Reform unit is especially timely. After poring through reams of testimony and test reports, Grazier, a Marine veteran, concludes the F-35 (originally known as the Joint Strike Fighter) is a shaky choice for carrier ops, has limited combat capability, and that the Pentagon continues to fudge its ultimate cost.

While Grazier’s report is packed with new, and disturbing, information down in the weeds, I’m climbing to take a look at the F-35 from, if you’ll excuse me, 50,000 feet. The cracks in the program he highlights were entirely predictable.

The Pentagon says it plans to buy nearly 2,500 F-35s, for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, for close to $400 billion, making it the most costly weapons program in history (and for that the $150-million-a-copy aircraft don’t even get a new name? It’s known as the Lightning II, in honor of World War II’s P-38 Lightning).

Tweaking the plane's hardware makes the F-35A stealthy enough for the Air Force, the F-35B's vertical-landing capability lets it operate from the Marines' amphibious ships, and the Navy F-35C's design is beefy enough to endure punishing carrier operations.

The resulting bastard child is a compromise, not optimum for any one service but good enough for all three. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy liked its stubby design. The F-35C's squat fuselage puts its tailhook close to its landing gear, making it tough to grab the arresting cable on an aircraft carrier. Its short range means aircraft carriers ferrying it into battle will have to sail close to enemy shores if the F-35C is to play a role. It can fly without lumbering aerial tankers only by adding external fuel tanks, which erases the stealthiness that is its prime war-fighting asset.

While there’s no doubt that there’s a political logic to building one plane for three services, there is no military logic. In fact, the reverse is true. And the economic logic is MIA as well.

On the political front, it makes sense to bind the three services to a single program. That turns the Air Force, Marines and Navy into cheerleaders for the program. Instead of the typical internal budget wars aimed at the other services’ pet program, they’ve decided to share the same pet. And they’re allied with the lawmakers whose bases will be home to the fighters, and those representing the 45 states in which F-35 parts are manufactured. Even Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s own self-described democratic socialist and 2016 Democratic candidate for the White House, has drunk the Kool-Aid.

But a veteran fighter pilot with more than 6,000 flight hours tucked into his G-suit thinks the deal is a disaster. "The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong,” retired general Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994, told me back in 2013. He scoffs at the Marine demand for a plane that can land vertically. "The idea of landing on a beach and supporting your troops close up from some improvised airfield, à la Guadalcanal,” he said, “is not going to happen.”

History backs him up. Building a flying Swiss army knife just doesn’t make sense. The U.S. Air Force and Navy tried it once before. The Tactical Fighter Experimental—TFX—program gave birth to the Air Force’s F-111 and the Navy’s F-14, after it bailed out of the TFX program because the plane proved too heavy and unwieldy for carrier operations.

“In 1961, the new Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara directed a joint aircraft acquisition program called the TFX, which would produce the first common aerial platform for multiple services,” an Air Force historian noted in a 2011 paper. “The resulting drama, subterfuge and resistance by the Air Force, the Navy and multiple sources inside and out of the Department of Defense caused the program to fail.”

Finally, while the military insisted the key reason to buy a joint-service airplane like the F-35 is to save money, the professional bean-counters don’t buy it. “Although joint aircraft programs do, in theory, save costs by sharing RDT&E [research, development, test, and evaluation] resources, increasing production runs, and utilizing economies of scale in O&S [operations and support], these savings are too small to offset the substantial additional average cost growth historically observed in the acquisition phase,” a 2013 study by the Rand Corp. concluded. “Historical joint aircraft programs have not yielded overall…savings compared with single-service programs.”

President Trump rattled Lockheed Martin, the builder of the F-35, when he said he might consider replacing some of them with more of the older (and cheaper) F-18s built by arch-rival Boeing.

Boeing’s F-18 may have been the cat’s meow at one time, but it’s a fourth-generation fighter, F-35 boosters say with a wrinkled nose as if they had just smelled something gross. “We need a fifth-generation fighter like the F-35,” they insist.

While that debate continues, another is just getting underway. The Air Force and its contractors have launched a study to figure out—you guessed it—what the blueprints for a sixth-generation fighter should look like. History shows the Air Force, and its sister services, will each get a better, not to mention cheaper, plane by flying solo.