The Cable

F-35s to Replace Troops in Europe as Russia Deterrent

The Pentagon wants to replace troops in Europe with two squadrons of the F-35 joint striker to deter Russia. The problem is that the jets are not close to ready for the battlefield.

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The Pentagon announced Thursday, Jan. 8, that as part of its response to Russian aggression, it would dispatch two squadrons of next-generation fighter jets to the United Kingdom to replace military personnel currently being withdrawn. The only problem is that these jets are far from battle-ready.

The Defense Department said it plans to base two squadrons of Lockheed Martin’s long-delayed F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter in the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) Lakenheath by 2020, even as it wraps up operations at the RAF’s Mildenhall air base, a longtime home for U.S. forces.

That will add up to a net reduction of about 2,000 U.S. military and civilian personnel in Britain. The moves are part of a broader Pentagon plan to close 15 military bases across Europe, which could save about $500 million per year. Currently, more than 74,000 Americans are stationed and working for the U.S. military overseas.

The shift is part of the $985 million “European Reassurance Initiative,” the Obama administration’s effort to bolster European militaries in the wake of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March.

“We have been working with our allies to reposition thousands of our military and civilian personnel within the region,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. “This transformation of our infrastructure will help maximize our military capabilities in Europe … so that we can best support our NATO allies and partners in the region.”

For this kind of deterrent to be effective, the weapons meant to counter the threat have to work. And that has been a problem so far for the F-35.

The $400 billion next-generation fighter program has become a poster child of runaway Pentagon spending. Despite being years past deadline and billions of dollars over-budget, defense procurement specialists have called the program “too big to kill” because parts of it are made in nearly every U.S. state, giving it plenty of political cover. It is already the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history and could cost as much as $1.5 trillion over the next half-century.

It is meant to replace traditional fighters, such as the F-16 used by the Air Force, as well as ground-attack jets. Other variants of the F-35 are meant to operate from aircraft carriers.

The plane, which is set to fly in combat missions in 2017, has been plagued with a host of issues from design flaws to cracks in the bulkhead to being too heavy. Its latest problems, first reported by the Daily Beast, involve its ground-attack 25 mm cannon, which reportedly can’t fire because of a software glitch, and its sensors, which reportedly can’t transmit battlefield data to troops in real time.

A day before the Defense Department announced its European shift, F-35 Joint Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova slammed the Daily Beast’s reporting, though he acknowledged software problems with the cannon. He said that if all goes according to plan, the plane’s problems should be fixed by 2019 — just in time for the squadrons’ arrival at Lakenheath.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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