The wrong stuff: The F-35 vs. what U.S. airpower really needs in the future

The wrong stuff: The F-35 vs. what U.S. airpower really needs in the future

By Kelley Sayler

Best Defense guest columnist

The fact that the F-35 Lightning II isn’t making an appearance at the Farnborough International Airshow is the latest in a never-ending string of disappointments that have marked the plane’s controversial history.  From past challenges with tail hooks and tires to engine cracks and engine fires, life has never been easy for the F-35, which has even had to confront an embarrassing vulnerability to its namesake weather phenomenon.   

Such setbacks might be acceptable — and expected — in a nascent experimental program, but the F-35 has already been in production for 8 years.  Indeed, largely due to concurrent testing and production, an approach that Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L Frank Kendall memorably referred to as "acquisition malpractice" (and one that hopefully will not be replicated any time soon), DOD will spend $1.65 billion merely to bring early-production jets up to standard.  Total program acquisition costs will reach $398.6 billion, with 55-year life-cycle costs surpassing the stratospheric $1 trillion mark, thus solidifying the F-35’s legacy as the most expensive weapons program in history.

Supporters of the F-35 are quick to defend the plane’s shortcomings as "the price to be paid" (both literally and figuratively) for a cutting-edge program.  The F-35 has, for example, found a staunch protector in Congress despite coming in well behind schedule and so far over budget that it breached Nunn-McCurdy limits by more than 50%.  With the exception of a few vocal outliers like John McCain, who has called the program a classic example of the "military-industrial-congressional complex," this support seems unlikely to wane any time soon (if for no other reason than, as Kate Brannen has reported, components of the program have been thoughtfully distributed across at least 45 states).

Likewise, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has remained a supporter of the F-35 in the face of its most recent challenges, going so far as to term it "the future for our fighter aircraft."  (One might have hoped, however, that the secretary would have waited until the plane was at least deemed to be airworthy before making such a pronouncement.)

To be sure, the F-35 is an impressive aircraft.  It features revolutionary technologies and some of the most advanced radar, sensors, and weapons in the world — all of which will contribute to the important task of deterring high-end conventional conflict.  At the same time, it is not at all clear that the plane is well-suited to actually operate in the threat environment of the future.  As a short-legged, tactical aircraft that can carry a relatively limited number of weapons in its much-touted stealthy configuration, its capabilities are likely to be constrained in a mature A2/AD environment.  Nor is it likely to be of much use in urbanized environments or even in the types of environments the United States has been operating in for the past 12 years.  (For a variety of reasons, its sister system, the F-22, has yet to see combat.)  

While the F-35 will have its uses, the U.S. military of the future will require a more diverse tool set — including smaller, less complex, and more numerous systems — capable of operating across a full range of contingencies.  While making substantial cuts in the F-35 buy will increase unit cost and potentially unsettle partner nations, doing so would enable the United States to divert funds to other systems that could provide increased range, loiter time, and kinetic effects. Given the extent of vested interests in the current program of record, gaining the political traction for such a move will certainly not be easy, but then, doing the right thing never is.

Kelley Sayler is a research associate with the Center for a New American Security’s Responsible Defense Program.  Her most recent report, co-authored with Ben FitzGerald, is Creative Disruption:  Technology, Strategy, and the Future of the Global Defense Industry She tweets @kelleysayler.