Kill the F-35

01.11.10

Categorie: Air, David Axe, Industry |
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F-35A

F-35A. Air Force photo.

by DAVID AXE

The Pentagon is expected to announce additional delays and cost increases for Lockheed Martin’s monopolistic F-35 stealth fighter. Launched in the 1990s as an “affordable, ” widely-used replacement for the F-16, F/A-18 and other aircraft, in recent years the F-35 has become exactly the opposite. Sales estimates of up to 4,000 jets — more than half of them for U.S. forces — seem increasingly fantastical as governments look to cut defense costs. Increasing development delays only make it easier for customers to cancel or defer their planned orders. With the order book looking thinner and thinner, pricey development gets spread out over fewer jets. Instead of costing the same as or less than today’s $50-million F/A-18E/F, the average F-35 will be around twice as expensive, per airplane, until very late in a projected 30-year production run.

For that reason, it’s time to pull the plug. That’s right: kill the F-35. It’s the surest way to save the Pentagon’s fighter fleets from slowly wasting away.

Last summer, the Pentagon tried to deny, then ultimately admitted, that F-35 development had run into serious management and technical obstacles. They problems cascaded throughout the program. This spring, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a major reorganization of the program, firing the general in charge, delaying full-rate production by a year to 2015 and adding $3 billion to development. Now Bloomberg is reporting that the Pentagon will push back full production to 2016 and add an extra $5 billion for R&D. The news comes just weeks after the U.K., previously the biggest projected F-35 customer after the U.S., reduced its anticipated buy to just 50 or so copies, down from 138.

Critics have a word for this cycle of increasing cost and decreasing orders. It’s called the “death spiral.” It’s how the U.S. Air Force has ended up buying just 187 F-22 fighters, several years late and at a cost of more than $300 million per jet, instead of the 381 the air service said it needed. If we allow the F-35 to continue spiraling, it will gobble up essentially all available funding for tactical airplanes for the next 30 years, without delivering the number of jets we need to keep up our fleets. Plus, the F-35 program as designed directs most of the Pentagon’s fighter budget to just one big manufacturer, basically starving the others. That’s bad for the U.S. defense industry.

Kill It
It’s time to kill the F-35 as a production program and redirect most of its roughly $300-billion future cost into other, more cost-effective aircraft designs spread over a greater number of manufacturers. Taxpayers have already spent around $50 billion on the F-35, but that’s not a compelling reason to maintain the program in its current form. Rather, the F-35 should become strictly a prototyping and technology-development program, rather than a large-scale production program — much in the same way the Pentagon cut the Navy’s $5-billion-per-copy DDG-1000 “stealth” destroyer to just three hulls, meant mostly for experimentation. We’ve paid for 100 F-35s. Let’s put them to good use refining concepts and technology. But we shouldn’t buy more of them

The timing is right. The U.S. still has four other, active manned-fighter production lines, plus drone programs, that can deliver the same or more capability and more aircraft, all at lower overall cost, and faster. The impact on foreign allies will be minimal. The implications for weapons manufacturers can be mitigated by reinvesting the savings. My proposal to kill off the F-35 is not about cutting U.S. defense spending or reducing the size or capability of American fighter fleets. Rather, ending the F-35 now would result in a stronger military and healthier industry.

The big question is, does Gates have the fortitude to dismantle the biggest weapons program in history? Despite Gates’ record as a boondoggle-killer — he curtailed the DDG-1000 plus the Army’s $200-billion Future Combat Systems — it’s an open question whether he has the clout and foresight to do the same with the F-35. To be sure, the F-35 will be one of Gates’ final acquisitions challenges: he’s expected to step down in 2011. The F-35 decision could be his most lasting legacy, if he can muster the courage to kill it. Or, if he concedes to more delays and cost increases, the F-35 could prove to be Gates’ biggest regret.

The U.S. air fleets need new fighters. The Navy and Marines have several hundred first-generation F/A-18s expected to age out in just a few years; most of the Air Force’s F-15Cs and F-16s will be worn out in a decade or so. To maintain the existing, overall fleet of some 3,000 tactical fighters, the Pentagon must buy at least 100 fighters a year, starting now. And it must do so within existing budgets, as economic conditions make a top-line increase highly unlikely.

There’s just one way to accomplish this. End the F-35 as a production program. The Pentagon should spend a few billion dollars over coming years experimenting with the F-35 airframes and systems, using the 100 jets we’ve already paid for. But plans to buy 2,400 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marines must stop. That would free up at least $12 billion a year immediately, and more down the road. Gates should reinvest that money in new and existing aircraft. Specifically, he should:

* Continue F-22 production at a rate of 20 per year, at a cost of around $4 billion annually. Add, say, 200 planes to current fleet. I admit I supported Gates’ earlier plan to truncate the F-22 in favor of the F-35, but circumstances have changed. A roughly 400-strong F-22 fleet could provide air-defense and defense-suppression capability for the Air Force, enabling bigger fleets of less-advanced jets to bomb and patrol with relative impunity. Extended F-22 production would help keep Lockheed happy in lieu of F-35 production.

* Replace F-15Cs with stealthier F-15 Silent Eagles, available from Boeing today. The Pentagon should negotiate to buy 20 per year for less than $2 billion, for a total of 200. Alongside 200 existing F-15Es, the newer F-15SEs would be capable of air-superiority and ground-attack within airspace sanitized by the F-22.

* Buy 400 F-16E/Fs from Lockheed for U.S.-based air patrols and, in wartime, “bomb-truck” duties alongside older F-16s. The new F-16s can be had for just $50 million a copy. Forty per year for $2 billion would recapitalize the U.S. Air National Guard before old-model F-16s age out. Between the F-22, F-15SE and F-16E/F, the Air Force would get 800 new fighters in 10 years, for the same price as continuing the F-35. The risk is smaller; the return is faster on the same overall investment; we lose no capabilities. Plus, the Air Force fighter fleet would remain at its current size of around 2,000 jets.

* For the Navy, sustain Boeing’s F/A-18E/F production at $2 billion per year for 40 jets, while adding new technology and weapons. The sea service should also boost investment in Northrop Grumman’s X-47 armed drone, or the armed Sea Avenger from General Atomics as a less risky alternative. For that, figure $1 billion annually. That funding would help keep Northrop and General Atomics viable as warplane-makers. In sum, the Navy gets enough planes on a sustained basis to avoid depopulating its carrier decks — and adds a new, long-range capability in the form of an armed drone.

* Direct the Marines to buy new F-18s: 20 per year should suffice, at a cost of around $1 billion. That would mean eventually surrendering fixed-wing operations from assault ships, currently performed by the AV-8B jump jet and originally slated for the vertical-landing F-35B model. Ending jump-jet ops does mean giving up a capability, but it’s a capability of marginal value. To replace jump jets on the assault ships, the Marines could add a few attack helicopters to the existing AH-1Z program, at marginal cost. Navy and Marine fighters flying from large carriers would cover beach landings.

* On the fringes, allow F-35 testing to continue, strictly for tech- and concept-development. Findings could fold into next-generation fighter programs starting in a decade or so. Around the same time, the Pentagon should start buying new bombers — something that might not be possible with the F-35 crowding the budget.

* Encourage U.S. allies to replace their planned F-35 fleets with Eurofighter Typhoons, Dassault Rafales, Saab Gripens, F-15s, F-16s, F-18s or light fighters from a range of manufacturers. As with the Marines, the only customers that will lose capabilities are those planning on using F-35Bs from assault ships. That includes the Italians, for sure, plus maybe Spain and South Korea. Again, this represents a capability of marginal value: certainly nothing to justify continued investment in an increasingly wasteful program.

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17 Responses to “Kill the F-35”

  1. Tim says:

    Your right , the reason being that the F22 and F35 are a jump too far in tech. They are going to be hanger queens for years until the problems are ironed out by which time UCAV’s will have superseded them.

    Ditch the F35 buy some Stealth Eagles and Hornets and roll the money and expertise into the x31 and UCAV projects.

    The Typhoon will be the last successful manned fighter program , in terms of delivering operationally and the RAF know its days are numbered with the development of the UCAV Taranis .

    T

  2. ELP says:

    Approved

    [signed]

  3. Brian Black says:

    Well you’ve convinced me, I won’t be buying any… but I have a depressingly confident feeling that the project will continue, and the final sole operator of the F35 – the US – will be left with a handful of obscenely expensive and rarely used aircraft.
    The original rationale for the US begining this programme was that developing a single multi-role ac was to be cheaper than starting up several different programmes, and that commonality across the services would minimize operating costs – surely there is no way of achieving these ideals.
    The original UK interest in the F35 was for the need to acquire a high-performance VSToL ac which could be used from small carriers – an idea that became redundant with the decision to build the QE class ships.

  4. Firefox says:

    Why the heck is there QDR and gazillions intelligence and analytical departments unable to put two and two together, while you have connected the dots pretty accurately (IMHO). Really great job.

  5. mareo2 says:

    Every time I read a report about the F-35 I get more convinced that the some people asked too much from the fighter for still be called “affordable”. Japan as lost more than enough time waiting for this piece of “someday finished fighter”. We better buy the latest F-16IN Super Viper or Eurofighter Typhoon before our fleet of F-4s start to fall apart.

  6. FooMan says:

    Maybe we should look at the age of the designs not the age of the airframe. Even the newest of the fighters mentioned in the article, the Eurofighter Typhoon, is over two decades in development/production now. The Hornet, Falcon, and Eagle are 70′s designs, that have had pretty new electronics hung on the same old designs. The closest to a new design would be the relatively newer F-35, which suffers from the famous ‘sports car/truck” system of development (designed by a committee, do everything and will invariably do none of its designed jobs well, although it will be hugely expensive), and is again another airframe that will take the place of XXXX (insert fantastical number of designs here) number of different airframe types. We will sell XXXX (insert imaginative total number of airframes) to every country in the world we think will need a combat aircraft in the foreseeable future.
    Foo

  7. ArtMan says:

    Just cut development of the VTOL version. It will speed up everything and lower the costs.

  8. BrianMan says:

    Convincing arguements. Quick, call Gates and get him to sign on

  9. Atomic Walrus says:

    It makes sense, but everything hinges on continuing production of the F-22 so there’s at least one new-technology aircraft in the fleet. The other aircraft can’t compete aerodynamically with the hypothetical advanced Flanker threat, and haven’t got the stealth technology to allow them to hide from the Flankers either. It might also be time to tell the Marines to get over Guadalcanal and let the Navy and Air Force provide air cover instead of duplicating capability. After all, the British army seem to have done okay with the RAF after the Dunkirk fiasco…

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  12. Vicente says:

    Some of us said at the time (Summer 2009) the F-22 was being shut down that Gates was making a bad call and this would come back to bite him and US air superiority in the ass.

    That ship has sailed, D. The F-22 ain’t coming back. We could have done this a year ago, but chose not to.

  13. hedgy says:

    Maybe we should be very retro and reintroduce the Sopworth Camel……..actually a new F18 has about 80-85% of the (theoretical) performance of the F-35 but at 40% of the cost…now that would be my buy, particularly with updated weaponry. And just who was the sophisticated F-35 supposed to be flying against…the Russians, Chinese or maybe the French…not much of a challenge there!

  14. Lollernoobers says:

    The F-35 is a joke. Compared to 4th gen fighters, it is slower, not as agile/maneuverable, carries less payload, and has less fuel endurance, but the saddest part of the plane is the fact that it is twice as expensive. There are so many options that the U.S. has as an option like continue funding for the F-22 and the F/A-18E/F, but why most so much of the defense budget on an inferior plane?

    If the F-35 fails (which is certainly looking that way already), our air force will crumble, our navy will crumble, our marine corps will crumble, and our air superiority will crumble, the worst part being we spent countless billions on it. With all that funding wasted away on an inferior plane, there wouldn’t be enough money to create an even better fighter. Thanks Crapheed Martin for giving us a plane that can’t do anything!

  15. mydeltapi says:

    My country, Norway, is one of those that have contracted to buy that junk.

    One may wander what marvelous secrets miracles this plane has that make it better than updated versions of older planes, and what these secret miracles are intended to be used for.

    mydeltapi

  16. FLOYD IN FLORIDA says:

    You would think our country would learn after a while The F-35 is a Dog!
    We had a similar plane Called the F-111 it too was a Dog! (Vietnam Era)
    You can either have a fighter or a Bomber but you can’t have both!
    Another Dog forced on the Military by Defense Contractor Congressional Lobbyist
    Spend that money! Yet Obama does nothing to stop this DOD Waste!

  17. ME says:

    Just remember all you yahoos that have never put on a military uniform or spent one second in a combant zone those of us that have have fought to give you the freedom to say what ever STUPID things you feel like saying.

    Unless you have seen a F-18, F-15, F-16 or even the F-4 up close and seen what they can do you have no right to speak.

    If you have any sense you’d realize that the “Manned” Fighter is on it’s way out. IMHO with the advancements in UAVs’ people will be sitting somewhere in the U.S. and flying in Afghanistan soo. Oh yeah, they already do. that don’t they?

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