Wary of Advertiser, Magazine Pulls Critic off F-35 Beat

11.05.10

Categorie: Air, David Axe, Media Spin, Reporters |
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Bill Sweetman. Facebook photo.

by DAVID AXE

The conspiracy to foist an overweight, underpowered, overpriced fighter jet on the U.S. military has just gotten a little more Byzantine. Aviation Week, arguably the number-one defense trade publication in the U.S. — and my former employer — has removed its top aviation reporter from the F-35 beat. “The editorial team has decided that Bill Sweetman will not be covering the F-35 program for a period of time,” the Washington, D.C.-based magazine stated.

In one move, the media-military-industry establishment has silenced one of the most important voices in one of the most important procurement programs. It’s a move that brings America a big step closer toward the same tyranny you see every day in countries such as China.

The drama began with a Facebook update. In advance of a trip to Fort Worth, Texas, to visit Lockheed Martin’s F-35 factory, Sweetman posted this status update:

Gentlemen, your target for tonight is Fort Worth. Flacks are predicted to be numerous and persistent on the run-in and over the target, and bullshit is expected to be dense throughout the mission. Synchronize watches and good luck.

Sweetman, my former boss at AvWeek, was referring to Lockheed Martin’s and the government’s long history of lying about the F-35. Two years ago, an independent Pentagon auditing team found serious management and production problems inside the decade-old, $300-billion program to build some 3,000 F-35 fighters for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plus more than a dozen allied countries. The problems would result in a two-year service delay and potentially tens of billions of dollars in cost increases.

It took a year for most reporters to notice the audit. It became hot news in the summer of 2009, as the Pentagon announced it would truncate F-22 fighter production in favor of the F-35. Amid that debate, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell called me directly to deny the F-35 auditors’ findings. “Delays in testing does not mean getting delay on [Initial Operating Capability],” Morrell said. Lockheed, for its part, insisted the F-35 was “on track.”

Six months later, the problems had gotten so bad that a cover-up became impossible. The Pentagon admitted the auditors had been right. The Air Force bumped back IOC two years to 2016. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates fired the government program manager and withheld from Lockheed $600 million in fees.

Sweetman had predicted all of this, in a series of blog posts and articles that, for months prior to the 2009 audit controversy, had detailed the F-35 program’s unraveling. Sweetman emphasized a metric that many reporters ignored: actual test flights versus planned test flights. The test flight goal for the 2009 fiscal year was 317 sorties, Sweetman revealed. “The total so far … is more like 30 flights, with a little more than two months to go.”

“For every month’s litany of problems in the program, you’ll find a Lockheed Martin or government program boss assuring the customers, Congress and the taxpayers that everything is going fine,” Sweetman wrote.

Everything is not going fine. Today, most reporters recognize that fact. Sweetman was ahead of them by two years. And when Sweetman commented on his Facebook page that Lockheed’s “bullshit is expected to be dense,” he was writing with authority. AvWeek‘s reward to the man who granted the magazine greater legitimacy than any other aviation publication on the F-35 beat? Suspension.

Why did AvWeek punish its best reporter for writing the truth? Here’s why:

Aviation Week
Aviation Week.

Note the Lockheed ad at right. The number-one defense contractor is also one of AvWeek‘s biggest advertisers. A Lockheed spokesman told reporter Steve Trimble that the company “has not asked Aviation Week to take disciplinary action against Bill Sweetman.” But it didn’t have to. Lockheed only had to keep buying ads. AvWeek‘s cowardly editors handled the disciplinary action all on their own. That’s one way influence works in D.C.

There’s more at stake than one man’s career. The F-35 program has proved, time and again, that it cannot be trusted with the taxpayer’s dollars. Audits and good reporting are the only way to keep the F-35 developers honest. Without Sweetman, that kind of oversight gets a lot harder.

As a consequence, the United States could wind up like China. Beijing is scrambling to cover up serious, and sometimes fatal, design flaws in its new J-10B fighters, which were partially reverse-engineered from Israel’s Lavi fighter. “The pitfalls of reverse engineering without paying royalty and truly understanding the technology are high accident rates, a fact that China has hushed up with its lack of media freedom,” Manu Sood reports.

The big difference is that the F-35 has not gotten anyone killed. Yet.

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10 Responses to “Wary of Advertiser, Magazine Pulls Critic off F-35 Beat”

  1. ELP says:

    Good post David.

  2. [...] of Interest 12 May 2010 Posted in Links by Eric Palmer on May 11, 2010 Wary of Advertiser, Magazine Pulls Critic off F-35 Beat Retirees May Be Gates’ Toughest Military Foe Australian Defence Department Details Defence [...]

  3. Daverino says:

    All I can say is, wow. I really appreciate what you do here David. And I hope that Bill Sweetman has the same guts that you do and decides to be an independent blogger. Being an independent voice covering defense issues is incredibly valuable to a nation.

    -Daverino

  4. RSF says:

    The amount of PowerPoint vaporware nonsense from Lockmart and the Pentagon on the F-35 has been staggering to date.

    Bill Sweetman’s constant postings on the numerous technical problems with JSF has been one of the few voices of reason concerning this seriously flawed program.

    Its sad that Aviation Weekly could be purchased so easily.

    Perhaps a name change to Aviation “Weakly” would be appropriate?

  5. [...] covering the largest defense program in history. AvWeek issues its statement, as his colleagues note his record of being correct about the program. Our Facebook-related coverage seems timely, [...]

  6. Another excellent post from War Is Boring

  7. Paralus says:

    The bottom line on the F-35 program is that the cost of producing each plane in today’s dollars will be around $60 million.

    The F-35 program is meeting or exceeding every one of its key performance parameters.

    The testing program to date has uncovered no significant design defects or problems.

    The production plan is only running six months late, and that lag will continue shrinking.

    Projected fleet prices for all three variants of F-35 have been stable for several years.

    Food Production capacity has exceeded goals in spite of Rocket Bomb attacks.

    Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

  8. David Bedard says:

    I thought Paralus was going to a. get flamed and b. is a representative of L-M armed with all of the talking points. Then I got to the end of his post…hilarity abounds.
    We should purchase Gen. 4.5 fighters Slam Eagles and Desert Falcons, buying a few hundred more F-22s for a deep strike/Wild Weasel mission capability.

  9. Tim says:

    The basic fact is that Lockheed has sold the US airforce two pups the F22 which is no where near mission capable and the disaster that is the F35.

    The problem is that the F22 and F35 are a step too far in terms of tech and they are proving a dog to maintain and develop to suitable operational standards. By the time they are have achieved acceptable operational standards the UCAV’s will have surpassed them.

    The Eurofighter will go down as the last successful manned fighter program as it does what it says on the tin and is able to meet operational criteria and is doing it across Europe as we speak .

    However the RAF will drop its last Tranche of Eurofighter in favour of the TARANIS UCAV.

    The F22 and F35 are too late to the game . As for the Russian dreampipe’s please they are a joke .

  10. [...] to be good stewards of our tax dollars which out-number criticisms (including one critic who was silenced) by an order of magnitude?) I’m happy to say this time around, though, that for the first [...]

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