Despite an optimistic new report from the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon’s fledgling F-35 fighter jet continues to struggle with rising costs, structural defects and a ponderous research process.
But if a sparsely attended Senate hearing last month is any indication, the program can expect clear skies going forward.
The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon was the lone non-governmental voice on a Senate Appropriations Committee panel dominated by military officers and acquisition personnel.
He was also the only panelist to advocate even moderate cuts to the Pentagon’s most expensive conventional weapons system. “I was a little bit of an outlier in talking about an alternative to the program,” O’Hanlon told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Current cost estimates for the F-35’s research and acquisition stand at $12.6 billion every year from now until 2037, and once acquired Defense Department experts believe the fleet of aircraft will cost over $1 trillion to maintain.
DOD officials claim that operating and support costs of this magnitude are ultimately unaffordable.
O’Hanlon advocates purchasing half of the planes currently slated for production, cutting the total procurement from 2,500 to 1,250 aircraft. He also wants to scrap entirely the Navy’s variant of the stealthy fighter jet, the F-35C.
“I have nothing particularly against the plane, it’s just that I think it’s very expensive,” O’Hanlon said.
In contrast with his cost-cutting approach, O’Hanlon’s fellow panelists spent most of their testimonies cataloging mistakes made over the program’s twelve-year development while insisting that the massive investments already made leave decision makers no choice but to move the program forward unscathed.
“In the financial industry, we have this phrase, ‘too big to fail,’” Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin remarked during the testimony, as reported by The Hill. “I’m wondering if this project is so large in scope that it was too big to cancel.”
The story of the F-35 reads like a cautionary tale for military acquisition experts. About two decades ago, the Pentagon began seeking replacements for its armada of aging warplanes. Seeking to save money,they decided in 2001 to combine the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps into one weapons system, billing the new fighter jet as the future Swiss army knife of military aircraft.
Ben Friedman, a defense expert at the Cato Institute, believes this is where the program first went wrong. “One of the main problems with having too many chefs in the kitchen generating requirements for this thing is that it became impossibly complex,” he told TheDC News Foundation.
He pointed to the Marine Corps’ demand for a jump jet able to take off and land vertically, claiming that the development of a capable engine delayed the program and added considerably to its cost.