The F35: boondoggle, or abject failure?
The F-35 (also known as the Joint Strike Fighter) is a military jet that was supposed to be able to do it all. The program was started in the 1990s with the intention that it could serve the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines and their various mission needs with only minimal changes to the initial platform. That would deliver cost savings across decades as one jet replaced (at least) three other types of planes. It seemed like a great idea in concept.
But, predictably, the jet that tried to do everything ended up having more problems than successes. By the time designers had added stealth technology, short runway functionality, and various weapon systems, they had a jet that was too bulky, too slow and too costly. “The result is an expensive jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none,” The National Interest’s Dave Majumdar writes, calling the JSF “one of the 5 worst fighter jets ever made.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. By this time, Lockheed was supposed to be churning out F-35 jets at a cost of $40-$50 million each. Instead, the military now says it wants to buy 470 of the fighters, at a cost of $34 billion. That would be more than $80 million per plane, twice what was promised.
Yet even as it tries to buy more of these planes, throwing good money after bad, the Pentagon admits the JSF program is failing. The Air Force’s top testing official wrote in 2016 that the F-35 is “not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded treats.”
It also falls short of existing platforms. Military analyst Dan Grazier writes, “In the air-to-air mission, the current F-35 is similarly incapable of matching legacy aircraft like the F-15, F-16, and F-22.” And when it comes to supporting troops on the ground, the one job the JSF was supposed to be designed for, “testing shows the F-35 is incapable of performing most of the functions required for an acceptable close support aircraft, functions the A-10 is performing daily in current combat.” One reason for that failure is that the F-35s guns aren’t very accurate. A report noted that pilots routinely miss their targets because of software failures.
As I’ve noted before, almost every new military aircraft, going at least as far back as the early Allison-engined P51 variants, gives off a certain stench of failure in the beginning. Not just aircraft, either: anybody recall back when the preliminary versions of the M1 Abrams MBT—now regarded by one and all as a more-or-less invincible world-beater—was declared a too-slow, too-heavy, too-fragile hunk o’ junk in the early runnin’s?
There’s always a shake-down period before any new piece of military hardware’s finer qualities begin to come shining through, particularly when what we’re talking about isn’t an incremental update we’re talking about, but a relatively radical departure from whatever preceded it. Those shake-down periods can take a long time before all the bugs are worked out, too. And if any of y’all can remember the last time a shiny new system like the F35 came in under—or even CLOSE TO—budget, feel free to remind me. Because I can’t.
For whatever it’s worth, my own opinion is that our mistake was made when we abandoned the F22 platform prematurely. An old Vodkapundit article linked at the end of the above one shares that sentiment:
For the U.S. Air Force, the most obvious alternative would be to resurrect the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. While reconstituting the production line would be expensive and difficult, it could be done. The U.S. Air Force stored the tooling for the aircraft—and while that storage process has problems, it’s not an insurmountable challenge. The more difficult problem will be the subcomponents. Indeed, most of the Raptor’s antiquated computer hardware hasn’t been built in years. However, a fleet of four hundred new F-22 Raptors would give the service a force capable of knocking down the door for follow-on conventional fighters such as upgraded or even new Lockheed F-16s or Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles.
As Stephen muses, a thornier dilemna would be figuring out where Marine Corps fixed-wing aviation will be left should the F35 be dumped, and how to resolve it. Marine CAS cannot live on Harriers and Ospreys alone, it seems.
Experience shows that almost every attempt at producing any variety of all-purpose, “jack of all trades” device or system, in whatever field of endeavor, is doomed to wind up squarely in “master of none” territory. As the article says, “good enough for government work”—most particularly when it comes to military hardware—is just not good enough. Sadly, that begins to look more and more like where we all are with the F35, I’m afraid.
On the other hand, this part speaks well of the F35’s potential for future success once all its bugs have been well and truly exterminated:
The Washington Post reports that “the late senator John McCain called the F-35 a ‘poster child for acquisition malpractice’ a ‘scandal’ and a ‘tragedy’ at different points during his tenure as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.” I frequently disagreed with Sen. McCain, but he was correct here. Even after all the time and money invested, the F-35 isn’t very good.
I dunno, man. If McStain was ag’in it, it’s pretty hard for me not to be for it. Tnen again, stopped clocks, blind squirrels, etc—you know the drill.