The F-35 seems to be catching a ton of heat, most recently over questions about whether pilots can eject safely. Development issues are not new – even aviation legends like the P-38 Lightning and B-29 Superfortress had their growing pains. However, the F-35 has much, much more riding on it. In essence, the United States and many of its closest allies need it to succeed.
Part of the reason the F-35’s stakes are so high is the fact one of the planes it is replacing is the F-16. The F-16 has been widely exported to a number of American allies, including Israel, South Korea, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Well, the F-16 is getting old – and these days, a combat aircraft with a big radar signature is arguably dead meat against advanced air-defense systems like the S-300. That would be daunting enough, but the F-35 is also replacing the Harrier in Marine Corps and the Royal Navy, F/A-18 Hornets in the Navy and Marine Corps, and the A-10 Thunderbolt. To say that Western militaries have all their eggs in the F-35’s basket would not be a real stretch.
The total program cost for the F-35 is slated to top one trillion dollars – enough money to buy 222 Nimitz-class carriers. Therefore, Congress is understandably worried about the problems that seem to be piling up. Then again, Congress has helped create those problems.
In 2009, the Obama Administration fought hard to shut down F-22 production at 187 airframes, gaining support from Senator John McCain and columnist Ralph Peters, among others, for that decision. Peters claimed the F-22 cost $350 million per aircraft, reaching that figure by divvying up the $28 billion in research and development costs and lumping them in with the actual costs of building the planes. In 2006, the Air Force was confident that the actual cost of building more F-22 Raptors would have been down to $116 million per plane. In other words, for less than $17.5 billion, the Air Force could have had an additional 150 Raptors.
How did that cancellation affect the F-35? Well, during the debate, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates claimed that the F-35 could handle the air-superiority mission – even though it was initially called the Joint Advanced Strike Technology project in the beginning phases. Its primary purpose was to hit air-to-ground targets. Now, thanks to Obama, Gates, and McCain, the F-35 is going to be asked to carry out missions that should have been assigned to the F-22s that would have been purchased had Obama not insisted that production be halted.
This is not to say that the plan behind the F-35 was perfect. In some ways, it is a repeat of the 1960s TFX program – which later emerged as the F-111. At the time, then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pushed for a single airframe that could handle strike missions for the Air Force, fleet-air defense for the Navy, and close-air support for the Army and Marine Corps. The close-air support version never materialized, and the F-111B for the Navy never got past the prototype stage. The Air Force did get a superb strike plane out of the deal.
Is the F-35 similarly a stretch too far? That remains to be seen. The F-35A and F-35C versions seem to be likely to succeed as replacements for the F-16 and the legacy F/A-18Cs. As a replacement for the A-10, there are open questions – questions that will likely take a fly-off to answer. The DOD needs be willing to accept the results of the F-35/A-10 fly off, especially if the venerable Thunderbolt beats out the Lightning.
Who deserves the blame for the F-35’s situation? Some of it goes to the ambitious nature of the program. Part of the blame is the fact that the F-35 is replacing legends. However, much of the blame should be on those who have heightened the expectations on the plane to justify stopping F-22 production. In this case, the F-35’s success depends on making sure that it isn’t set up to be seen as a failure – leading to a premature halt of production.
Ultimately, when the bugs are worked out, the F-35 will likely prove to be a good plane that will serve our troops well. That being said, and it probably will need some help. Re-starting F-22 production and keeping the A-10 in service would be a good start.