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:
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.