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The Bridge: Failure to Launch

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“A big, ugly subject, quite frankly.”

That’s a direct quote from my colleague, Senior Defense Policy Fellow Dan Grazier, on the subject of the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. The F-35 is the most expensive weapon ever built. But 20-plus years into development, it’s far from combat ready.

The F-35 is plagued with so many dangerous technical deficiencies that it’d be impractical to list them all. Despite the jet’s many shortcomings, the Pentagon is refusing to recalibrate its approach, and Congress isn’t willing to cut its losses. So every year, more money is poured into this failing program. And unsurprisingly, just this month, yet another issue with F-35 production cropped up.

In this edition:

  • The latest blunder on the F-35
  • The sorry state of the F-35 today and how exactly we got here
  • Lessons learned from this debacle

A few weeks ago, the Pentagon paused delivery on new F-35 fighter jets after it was discovered that a magnet in the jet was made with raw materials from China. There were concerns that the foreign materials could jeopardize security or flight safety, or even transmit sensitive information about the aircraft. Though it was ultimately determined that the magnet wasn’t a threat, it isn’t reassuring that foreign materials wound up in the weapon without anyone noticing.

Mishaps like this are almost inevitable because the F-35 production system is too complicated for its own good.

If this is your first time learning about the F-35, strap in. My colleague, Dan Grazier, POGO’s resident F-35 expert who recently wrote an analysis on this situation, sat down with me to share a history lesson on the notorious flightless bird.

TL;DR: The F-35 in 2 Minutes (Video)

But first, some context.

Ironically, the F-35 was first envisioned to be an economical solution: a three-for-the-price-of-one jet meant to bring the American military into the 21st century. Several branches of the military needed new warplanes, so the Pentagon decided to combine the replacement efforts to meet the various needs of the Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy with one jet: the F-35. That may sound like an efficient decision, but it turned out to be just the opposite.

“Purpose-built aircraft — aircraft built to perform just one mission — do really well. They’re easy and less costly to develop,” Dan said. “But when you combine purposes and try to get one aircraft to do multiple things for multiple services, the complexity involved in the design shoots up dramatically.”

From the very conceptual beginnings, things got off on the wrong foot. The overly complicated design is what led to the cost overruns and the extreme delays we’re seeing today.

A POGO graphic from a few years ago sums things up.

Jack of all trades, master of none

The F-35 production contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor. But two decades later, the F-35 isn’t ready to go into testing. In fact, Dan told me it is more than 10 years away from even having a finished design.

Analysis: F-35 Program Stagnates

Not only is F-35 development off schedule, but it’s backlogged with unresolved design flaws. It was reported last year that the program has several hundred deficiencies that jeopardize mission success and seven issues that could cause injury or death to the pilots.

Read more on the F-35’s many design flaws

And then, of course, it’s profoundly over budget. The original cost of the program was supposed to be $200 billion. To date, the costs have doubled, and we’re still far from the finish line. When all costs are considered for the anticipated 50-year lifetime of the program, taxpayers are footing a $1.7 trillion bill. If there was a way to further emphasize that number, I’d use it.

What’s worse is that these issues aggregate. The delays in the program mean that there will be a need to modernize the F-35s that have already been purchased. The earliest versions of the aircraft will likely become nothing more than training simulators and spare parts. At this point, Dan said, “It’s nothing more than a very expensive prototype.”

We’ve sunk so much money down this rathole already, it feels like we’ve gone too far to cut our losses. But we’re paying for a fighter jet that can’t fight.

The F-35 program’s failures are disturbing and infuriating. And that harsh judgment is only based on what we know — there’s a lot that’s been kept in the shadows that’d almost certainly make it all look worse.

The signifier and the signified

These cost overruns, delays, and design flaws — along with mishaps like the Chinese alloys in the magnet — are symptoms of the same issue: The F-35 weapon system is too complicated to function.

The problem with almost all our modern weapons systems is that their complex design requires sprawling systems of subcontractors to make things work. Thousands of suppliers from around the world are involved in the F-35 supply chain. The system is just too big, and the Pentagon’s lost track of where materials are coming from.

But the U.S. military should not be losing track of where weapon parts are originating. This time around, it was a harmless alloy that ended up in the F-35s. But this subcontractor system could allow for something much worse — say, a foreign computer chip — to sneak its way into the planes undetected. The kicker is that more insidious incidents like this have already happened.

A cautionary tale

The F-35 is a prototype of exactly how not to do things. Overly complex designs and flawed defense contracting practices make for systems that lose sight of themselves.

When it comes to these weapons, simplicity should be key. As Dan writes, “If a reliable mechanical system works, it is probably the right solution.”

Read Dan’s whole piece here.