Say It Ain’t So! Joint Fighter Programs Don’t Actually Save Money
A warplane built for everyone pleases no one
Joint-service fighter programs don’t save the American taxpayer any money. That’s the un-shocking conclusion of a new study by the California-based think tank RAND.
What will the analytical group tell us next? That water is wet, airline flights are late and there is no Santa Claus?
Still, it’s nice when a think tank provides analytical cover for a strain of skepticism stretching back to the days of the ill-fated F-111 … and the much-maligned F-4 … and now the controversial F-35. As we skeptics have long known, it’s tempting to try to boost efficiency with a one-size-fits-all fighter, but the result is always a warplane that fits no one.
The RAND report finds that:
• Joint fighter programs have higher acquisition costs and life-cycle costs than aircraft designed to meet the needs of a single service such as the Air Force or Navy.
• Owing to common maintenance and supply, life-cycle costs for the F-35 should, in theory, be 16 percent less than the combined support costs of three individual Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter programs.
But in reality, F-35 costs are actually 65 percent higher a full decade after development began. There seems to be little chance the Pentagon will ever reach the 16-percent-cheaper goal.
• It’s impossible for a joint aircraft to please everyone. Accommodating the requirements of different services adds more complexity and decreases commonality. Consider the Marines’ insistence that their F-35 version have vertical take-off capability, resulting in heavy equipment and aerodynamic compromises to all three versions of the jet.
“For example, the congressionally mandated joint Air Combat Fighter program in the early 1970s evolved from an original goal of 100 percent commonality into two distinct platforms with zero commonality: the Air Force F-16A/B and the Navy F/A-18A/B,” RAND notes.
“In other cases, necessary design compromises left the services unsatisfied and sometimes resulted in one or more partners withdrawing from the program, as in the case of the Air Force/Navy F-111 program and numerous others,” the think tank adds.
• A joint fighter program means there is only one manufacturer, such as Lockheed Martin for the F-35, which narrows the defense industrial base.
• Relying on a single joint design increases vulnerability. RAND cites a hypothetical study in which a multi-service warplane replaces the Air Force’s F-86 in the Korean War, only for the researchers to find that the joint plane is inferior to the enemy MiG-15.
Sixty years later, if the F-35 doesn’t work as designed, then none of the services will have the strike fighter it needs.