Small Wars

This Week at War: The Jet That Ate the Pentagon

The F-35 is cutting into the Defense Department's most important priorities.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Image
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Image

Policymakers get 11th-hour second thoughts on the Joint Strike Fighter

The troubled and long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program came under renewed scrutiny this week. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign partners plan to buy thousands of the fighter-attack jets over the next two decades to replace a variety of aging aircraft, but the development schedule of the stealthy fighter has slipped five years to 2018 and the projected cost to the Pentagon for 2,457 aircraft has ballooned to $385 billion, making it by far the most expensive weapons program in history.

The Government Accountability Office reported that although Pentagon management of the program is improving, developers have only completely verified 4 percent of the F-35’s capabilities. The program received another blow this week when the Senate Armed Services Committee learned that the Pentagon will likely have to spend $1 trillion over the next 50 years to operate and maintain the fleet of F-35s. Evidently reeling from sticker shock, Sen. John McCain demanded that "we at least begin considering alternatives." But is it too late to prevent the F-35 program from devouring the Pentagon’s future procurement budgets?

Air Force officials themselves may now doubt the wisdom of the size of the commitment to the F-35. According to a recent Aviation Week story, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton placed new emphasis on the importance of the Air Force’s next-generation long-range bomber. With procurement funds sure to be tight in the decade ahead, Conaton hinted that the Air Force may have to raid the F-35’s future budgets in order to help pay for the new bomber.

The rapidly changing strategic situation in Asia and the western Pacific should compel policymakers to reexamine the size of the commitment to the F-35. Yet another critical report on the F-35 from the Pentagon’s acquisition office dated Dec. 31, 2010, revealed that the Air Force version of the attack jet would have a combat mission radius of 584 miles, just short of the original stated requirement of 590 miles, and significantly less than a recent expectation by program officials that the jet would be able to strike targets 690 miles away without midair refueling.

A combat radius of 584 miles leaves planners with few options when contemplating operations over the vast distances in the Asia-Pacific region. As I discussed in a recent column, China’s growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles are already capable, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, of striking the U.S. Air Force’s main bases in the region. These missiles are also putting the Navy’s aircraft carriers increasingly at risk, which could compel the Navy to move the vessels out of the F-35’s strike range.

The solution is combat aircraft with much longer ranges, which would operate from distant bases less vulnerable to missile attack. This would explain Conaton’s increased emphasis on the new long-range bomber and the Navy’s interest in a long-range combat drone that would launch from its aircraft carriers and some of its amphibious ships.

There are still significant roles for the F-35 and many of its leading-edge stealth and electronic capabilities. The F-35 can defend against enemy aircraft, can collect and distribute intelligence from over a battlefield, and can attack heavily defended targets within its range. In any case, the program is "too big to fail," or at least "too big to kill," and it is far too late in the day to now consider alternatives. But it seems increasingly likely that the Air Force and Navy will eventually truncate their planned purchases and redirect those savings into new long-range platforms. Doing so would cause the unit cost of the F-35 to spike even higher which would likely lead many foreign partners to drop out. But that regrettable consequence may be necessary if the Air Force and Navy are to have the money to buy capabilities that will actually be useful in the vast stretches of the Pacific.

Defense cuts will mean more risk. Is the Marine Corps the Pentagon’s best hedge?

At remarks delivered at a recent dinner sponsored by the Center for a New American Security, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos asserted that the Marine Corps will be one of the country’s principal risk management tools in the decade ahead. Inevitable cuts to the Pentagon’s budgets will require policymakers to take greater security risks, but Amos argued that the Marine Corps’s unique attributes will provide a useful hedge against some of the added risks policymakers will have to assume. Amos argues that the Marine Corps’s broad portfolio of capabilities and organizational culture make it particularly well-suited to respond to unknown risks. Is the Marine Corps a good hedge against strategic risk? And what can Amos and his colleagues do to improve the Corps as a risk management tool?

In an earlier column, I discussed the Marine Corps’s plan for its post-Afghanistan future. That plan calls for cuts to many of the its conventional frontline combat capacities and increased investments in some specialized and irregular capabilities. Marine Corps planners are betting that they won’t get bogged down in another large, open-ended campaign such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither will they have to fight another big tank battle as they did against Saddam Hussein in 1991. With the new force structure, the planners are optimizing the Corps for rapid-crisis response, dust-ups with murky but dangerous "hybrid" non-state actors, and for assisting and partnering with allied military forces around the world.

Hedging and risk management are all about preparing for surprises. Although a seemingly oxymoronic concept, leaders can promote attributes that enhance an organization’s ability to rapidly adapt to surprises. Surprises are by definition unknowable. But organizations can prepare for surprise by improving their ability to adapt.

Amos asserts that the Marine Corps has a balanced portfolio of wide-ranging capabilities, which its planners can tailor to meet a variety of contingencies. The Marines train in many climates and terrain, also preparing them for numerous possibilities. And Amos explained how the Corps plans to become lighter and more mobile after Afghanistan, improving its response time during crises.

These are all helpful attributes for rapid adaptation. But the most powerful attributes of adaptation are intangible and are found within an organization’s culture and human capital. For example, organizations that are "confidently paranoid" respect the threats posed by their competitors while retaining the confidence to devise effective solutions. Adaptable organizations decentralize decision-making and expect subordinates to take responsibility for solving problems with little guidance from above, even when this results in "learning mistakes" and inefficiencies. Adaptable organizations reward subordinates for creativity and resist punishing those whose ideas failed or wasted resources. Adaptable organizations tolerate "organizational entrepreneurs" and the messy organization charts that can result.

Perhaps most notably, adaptable organizations require seemingly wasteful redundancy, healthy budgets for education and rotational assignments, and experimentation, much of which will go awry. Preparing for surprise requires a willingness to accept failed approaches, recruiting and then letting go people who aren’t suitable, and what will appear to be much wasted overhead.

The Marine Corps takes pride in the development of its junior leaders and in the amount of responsibility it places on them. But how much the Marine Corps has tolerated the inevitable learning mistakes, inefficiencies, and messiness required for effective adaptation has varied over time. Building an adaptable organizational culture for the Marine Corps may not be cheap. But it may be cheap if it avoids a future military disaster.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.