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.
The GAO first raised concerns about the program’s reliance on complex technology at the start, issuing a 2001 report that advocated delaying development until “critical technologies mature to acceptable levels.” In what was to become a pattern, the DOD rejected that recommendation and forged ahead regardless.
Initial projections put the planes’ total acquisition costs at $233 billion and estimated that full-scale production of the completed aircraft would begin in 2012. But those assessments almost immediately required revision.
Research delays repeatedly pushed back the estimated completion time, eventually reaching 2019, where it stands today. And rising research and equipment costs combined with a concurrent development program to send expected total acquisition costs to nearly $400 billion.
While the most recent report paints a promising picture of a program beginning to correct its previous mistakes, the outlook remains precarious.
Ignoring a strong warning from the GAO, in 2007 the Pentagon began production of the F-35 despite having completed only one percent of testing. This simultaneous research, testing and production process meant that early versions of the aircraft required expensive retooling and structural durability upgrades.
Because only one-third of development testing has so far been completed, the GAO expects that nearly 300 planes will require some form of retrofitting. The upgrades are expected to cost $1.7 billion.
Research remains exceptionally over-budget and behind schedule. Only 12 percent of the plane’s software systems have been completed, and the most complex research lies ahead. Delays and cost increases are so pronounced that some next-generation technologies, including a groundbreaking new helmet-mounted display, may be moved outside of the program altogether.
Finally, the F-35’s projected maintenance cost of over $1 trillion remains unsustainable, and cost-controlling measures being pursued by the DOD have yet to make sufficient headway.
“It seems unlikely that we’re going to end up spending that much on this program alone,” Friedman remarked. “Something is going to have to give.”
Phillip Lohaus, a national security scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, disagrees with that perspective.
“Even though the numbers seem really big, the [F-35] program is only 1.6 percent of the Pentagon’s budget,” he said in an interview with TheDC News Foundation. “If we are really going to try to cut the Pentagon’s budget, there are other areas we can look at, for example ballooning personnel costs.”
Lohaus believes the F-35 program should be preserved as an essential component of any future threat response. “In many ways this program cuts to the core of what the Defense Department is supposed to do: protect America and provide a strong force that can lead to peace through strength,” he said.
“I think the timeframes [for completion] that they’ve proposed recently are more realistic,” he added.
But O’Hanlon and Friedman agreed that the program will cost even more, and take even longer to complete, than current estimates acknowledge.
“I think you’re reaping what you sow whenever you build this kind of airplane,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s a very good airplane, but it’s a very expensive airplane. And that’s likely to remain the case.”
Friedman was even more direct. Asked whether he expected the Pentagon to reach its new time and budget targets, he replied simply, “No.”
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