It’ll take more than a tweet to cut, let alone kill, the program
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Dec. 21, 2016, Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the U.S. Air Force officer in charge of the F-35 program, met with Donald Trump at the president-elect’s Mar-a-Lago resort to discuss the troubled stealth fighter Bogdan oversees.
Earlier in December, the president-elect decried the F-35’s costs — the most expensive weapons program in history. “The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump declared through his favorite outlet, Twitter. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved.”
At the gathering in Florida, Bogdan surely tried to disabuse the incoming president of this notion. The officer brought along models of all three F-35 variants to highlight his points.
“This program is not out of control,” Bogdan had already said on Dec. 19, 2016. “I’ll just lay the facts out on the table and let them make their own judgements, ’cause I don’t think the program cost-wise is out of control, nor do I think it’s out of control schedule-wise.”
On Dec. 22, 2016, Trump signaled he still wasn’t convinced.
“Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” the president-elect tweeted, causing the Maryland-headquartered defense contractor’s stock value to drop more than $1 billion in minutes.
Whatever the Pentagon might say, it goes without saying that the F-35 has had — and continues to have — a lot of problems. The jets can’t dogfight against dated opponents, the engine arrangement severely limits how many weapons the plane can carry, the fancy and expensive helmets blind pilots at night and might even kill them in an accident.
The ejection seat might not work properly, various design features pose potential fire hazards, the aircraft’s much-touted computer brain might lock pilots out and the radar used to frequently crash and needed rebooting in midair.
In February 2016, the Pentagon’s top weapons-tester Michael Gilmore released his annual report on the status of various big-budget weapons programs. The section on the F-35 was 48 pages long. Seven months later, Gilmore issued another scathing memo regarding the Joint Strike Fighter’s development.
In October 2016, an F-35 burst into flames. On Dec. 19, 2016, Bogdan admitted the Pentagon had known about the problem, which caused approximately $2 million in damage to the fighter jet, for some time.
The constant string of negative press hasn’t been good for the Pentagon or plane-maker Lockheed. Both routinely push back against critical media reports, just as Bogdan did earlier in December 2016.
“Our government and industry team has a proven track record of overcoming technical challenges,” Bogdan wrote in a statement on Jan. 29, 2016. “These accomplishments prove the basic design of the F-35 is sound.”
During his campaign, Trump made comments implying he was going to demand a review of the program. He directly cited the leaked dogfighting report War Is Boring obtained in 2015.
Boeing’s offering appears to have caught Trump’s eye for two simple reasons. Super Hornets are relatively cheap and ready to go. In 2013, each Super Hornet cost approximately $61 million — half the price of the Pentagon’s official estimate for each F-35.
In addition, the Navy is already flying Super Hornets and plans to do so even after its F-35C carrier-launch variants arrive. With Canada and Kuwait announcing new Super Hornet purchases in 2016, Boeing will be keeping the production line open for a few years.
In 2013, a company called RaceRocks produced an ad — embedded below — claiming the Chicago-headquartered defense contractor could supply three Super Hornets, along with spare parts and other support, for the cost of a single F-35.
“It’s really not that complicated,” the video extols.
But, as with many of the policies Trump has proposed in 140 characters or less, he may find upending the F-35 project exceedingly difficult.
Between the official requirements, existing investments and the sheer number of defense contractors and foreign allies involved in the program, the jet has a healthy supply of supporters inside and out of governments around the world.
The Super Hornet is also in no way, shape or form “comparable” to the Pentagon’s desired, final-production F-35. The two aircraft reflect very different eras and different views on the future of aerial warfare.
At least on paper, F-35 pilots will be able to use stealth and far-seeing sensors, plus detailed information about the enemy “fused” from other planes and ground stations, to make up for the aircraft’s other shortcomings. For more than a decade, the Pentagon has claimed the jets will revolutionize how America fights in the sky.
“The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual ‘dogfighting’ situations,” Lockheed insisted in a July 1, 2015 press release. “Sensors … allow the F-35 to see its enemy long before it knows the F-35 is in the area.”
Boeing’s Super Hornet is based on a 1970s design, doesn’t have stealthy features and lacks the sort of advanced gear the Pentagon wants to put in its Joint Strike Fighters. Engineers would need to completely redesign the twin-engine Super Hornet at great cost for it to match up to the basic requirements the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy have for their next fighter jet.
It’s technically do-able, and would still likely cost less than the exorbitant F-35. But the Chicago-based plane-maker would also probably still need to cook up three different versions … pretty much like the F-35. In 2016, Bogdan admitted that the strike fighter jet project was anything but “joint.”
Despite the Pentagon’s plan to save money with shared features, the F-35A, B and C variants only have 20 to 25 percent of their components in common. It’s “almost like three separate production lines,” the general conceded, according to Air Force Magazine.
The Marines’ F-35B is dramatically different from the A and C-models. The leathernecks want the jets to replace their aging AV-8 Harrier jump jets, so their variant comes with a complicated lift fan and tilting engine exhaust nozzle so it can take off and land vertically.
The Super Hornet doesn’t have this feature. There’s no space in the F/A-18’s narrow fuselage to easily accommodate such a drastic design change.
Of course, there is significant debate over whether the Pentagon actually needs the capabilities the F-35 is supposed to offer. Many have already argued the services could and should have accepted improved F-15, F/A-18 and F-16 fighter jets instead of F-35s.
Bogdan, Lockheed and other officials have countered by pointing out that steadily improving Russian and Chinese fighter jets, deadly air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and long-range radars might threaten American pilots.
In turn, some members of Congress proposed restarting production of the older F-22 stealth fighter.
But the complicated issues of what plane might be cheapest and most appropriate for the U.S. military’s needs are almost moot when it comes to the F-35. For better or worse, the program is now tied to thousands of jobs — and billions of dollars in salaries and projected tax revenue — in 46 states.
Lockheed has outlined plans to build more than 2,000 F-35s of all types for the Pentagon and nearly a dozen American allies. In 2016, Israel, Italy and Japan took delivery of their first examples.
As of 2016, Australian, British, Dutch and Norwegian crews were working side by side with their American counterparts at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. By that point, Lockheed’s so-called “low-rate” production line had churned out more Joint Strike Fighters than many NATO air forces had aircraft of all types.
If Trump tried to stop the project now, he’d have to deal with a Pentagon that already owns dozens of F-35s. The Air Force and Marine Corps have spent considerable time and energy restructuring units and bases to accommodate them.
The F-35 long ago became a nearly unstoppable political juggernaut. On the left and right of the political aisle in Congress, the jobs the project created across the country — stable jobs that looked set to last for decades — and the money that came with it were too great to ignore.
The often cash-strapped Air National Guard has also seized on the project as a way to get new planes and additional funding. These officials exert considerable pressure on legislators — Democrat, Republican and independent — to bring the jets and the associated economic benefits to their particular state.
“What are my options as a senator?” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), hardly a fan of America’s extravagant defense spending, told a town hall in November 2014. “If I said no to the F-35 coming to Burlington, for the Vermont National Guard, where would it go?”
“My view is that given the reality of the damn plane, I’d rather it come to Vermont than to South Carolina,” Sanders added.
To get past this bipartisan front and follow through on any plan to halt the F-35 and switch to F/A-18s, Trump would likely have to find a solution that provides similar benefits. And simply getting Boeing to quote the price of a Super Hornet with new modifications won’t be nearly enough to convince the Pentagon and legislators to dump the Joint Strike Fighter.
Cancelling or cutting back the program would similarly threaten to leave allies in a bind, with few other options and no way to recoup their existing investments — billions of dollars already in many cases. This particular point might not bother Trump, who has promised to get U.S. partners around the world to do more for their own protection.
In short, it’s likely to take more than a tweet and the promise of a better deal to get in the way of the F-35.