The F-35 Is Not Too Big to Fail
Other viable options exist
by DAN GRAZIER
On Dec. 22, 2016, outraged by the F-35’s cost overruns, president-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to announce he had asked Boeing to “price-out” a comparable F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
Most people in Washington have assumed the F-35 program is too big to fail, so it is encouraging to see someone in power at least suggesting action to correct and hold accountable a program that has become a national disgrace.
Trump shook the defense industry to its very foundation with 140 characters. But tweeting is not exactly governing.
After Trump made his comments on social media, the usual chorus of F-35 advocates were quick to leap into action, penning articles saying there are no alternatives. According to them, the Joint Strike Fighter is the only thing standing between the United States and total annihilation at the hands of enemy forces poised for an invasion.
A prime example is a recent article in Breaking Defense, which lectured, “No, Mr. Trump, You Can’t Replace F-35 With A ‘Comparable’ F-18.” In it, Doug Birkey, head of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, runs through the usual industry talking points.
The aircraft has amazing stealth capabilities, decreasing costs and the ability to perform every mission, Birkey explains. All of this is to try and justify the massive waste of tax dollars represented by the mounting failures of the F-35, which, at over $1.4 trillion, is the most expensive weapons purchase in history.
How to fill the air power hole the F-35 disaster created?
In light of the realities of Washington, the Project On Government Oversight has long advocated halting further F-35 production until the program has completed the initial operational test and evaluation process. Besides the fact that federal law requires it, completing the testing before production is the only thing that will tell us if the stealth fighter is at all suitable for combat.
Halting production now is critical. Under the Pentagon’s existing plans, American taxpayers will buy 798 F-35s before anyone knows whether the design will actually be effective in battle.
Given Trump’s statements, an opportunity exists to drastically change the direction of this disastrous program. If the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin still can’t field a usable system after 25 years of development, it seems hardly likely that there is any hope for ever redeeming the F-35.
Lockheed Martin’s CEO has pledged to bring down the cost, but these promises appear to be little more than an effort to knock off a few million dollars with a volume discount. In other words, taxpayers would need to buy more planes of dubious combat utility in order to get them cheaper.
Now may be the right time to cut our losses and reinvest the money in some better-conceived fighter programs that quickly expand our decimated air-to-air and close air support forces. We could do so with planes that are demonstrably more combat effective than the F-35.
If the new administration is serious about this effort, we recommend immediately cancelling the Joint Strike Fighter program and doing the following:
1. To fill the near-term hole in our air-to-air forces, start a program to refurbish and upgrade all available F-16A/B/C/Ds and F/A-18A/B/C/Ds with the much higher thrust engines — the F-110-GE-132 in the case of the F-16 and the F-404-GE-402 in the case of the F-18 — as well as with new lighter weight, more effective off-the-shelf passive electronics.
This will give us fighters that are significantly more effective in air-to-air combat than either the later F-16 and F/A-18 models or the F-35. On top of that, the Pentagon could add airframes from the boneyard if needed to bring pilot training hours up to the minimum acceptable level of 30 hours per month.
2. To fill the far more serious near-term hole in close air support forces, complete the re-winging of 100 A-10s, which the Air Force has refused to finish. Then expand the inadequate existing force of only 272 A-10s by bringing every available aircraft in the boneyard up to the latest A-10C standard.
3. Immediately undertake three new competitive prototype fly-off programs. The first would be to design and build a more lethal and more survivable close air support plane to replace the A-10 and design.
In addition, two more would produce different air-to-air fighters, far smaller and far more combat effective against competent enemies equipped with advanced radars, missiles and stealth countermeasures — one each to replace Air Force’s F-16s and F-22s and the Navy’s F/A-18s.
These programs should follow the model of the Lightweight Fighter and A-X programs in the 1970s, particularly in regard to live-firing, realistic-scenario competitive fly-off tests. These projects resulted in the F-16 and the A-10, two indisputably highly effective aircraft that were each less expensive than the preferred Pentagon alternatives at the time. And they became operational after testing in less than 10 years, not 25.
Multi-mission airplanes are flexible and save money?
In his piece for Breaking Defense, Birkey makes the standard argument that multi-role planes like the F-35 save money and add mission flexibility. Aviation history has proven this wrong again and again.
A notorious example is the F-111 Aardvark, which the Pentagon and General Dynamics designed and sold as an all-in-one fighter, bomber and close air support plane suitable for the Air Force, Marines and Navy. It was the F-35 of its day. Following huge overruns and failure in Vietnam combat, the Pentagon canceled the F-111 one-third of the way through its 1,500-plane program.
According to military aviation pioneer Pierre Sprey, this is inevitable. Though aircraft well-designed for a single role can often successfully adapt to other missions, planes designed for multiple roles end up too big, too expensive and too compromised to perform any of their missions well — while costing taxpayers a fortune for their disappointing ineffectiveness.
This is true in spades for the F-35. In 2016, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation said testing showed the F-35 had poor payload, poor range and survivability as a bomber, needed escorts to protect it from enemy fighters, and needed outside help to find targets for close air support and deep strike missions.
The top weapon tester also pointed out we wouldn’t know whether the plane was even suitable for close air support for at least another five years.
Will the real sticker price of the F-35 please stand up?
This claim is as generous as it is deceptive. For one thing, that is just the estimated cost of an Air Force conventional take-off variant, the F-35A — the least expensive of the three variants. In addition, that cost figure is actually only an estimate, one that assumes everything will perfectly for the F-35 from here on out and that the Pentagon will buy more than it had planned.
When people say the F-35 will only cost $85 million, they are only talking about the price of the airframe and the engine. Proponents don’t include how much it will cost to fix design flaws found in testing — a not insubstantial amount of money.
And supporters are only being truthful in the sense that taxpayers would receive a plane sitting in a hanger. The sticker price of a combat vehicle isn’t like the sticker price on a car.
When a person buys a vehicle, the price they pay to the manufacturer is all they’ll pay to the dealer. When the Pentagon buys an F-35, the sticker price — $85 million in this case — does not include all the money taxpayers will hand over to the contractor.
You also have to consider the cost of upgrades to fix design flaws found in testing. It is important to remember that even after 25 years, the F-35 is still not a fully-designed system.
As the program moves out of the easy part of the testing — the development or laboratory testing — and moves into the critical combat testing period in the next few years, evaluators will uncover even more problems. A good example occurred in late 2016 when engineers discovered debris inside the fuel tank of an F-35.
Upon closer inspection, they found insulation wrapped around coolant lines had disintegrated because a subcontractor failed to use the proper sealant. Contractors will have to devise, test and then put into place fixes to all of these problems throughout the fleet of aircraft Lockheed has already produced and purchased.
This is a costly process. The Government Accountability Office calls this the “concurrency tax.”
The GAO has estimated this cost has already come to $1.7 billion. More, much more, is to come, especially judging from reports from Pentagon’s top tester that many longstanding problems remain unresolved.
Once you have a functional plane, there’s also the cost of the maintenance equipment, the training simulators, augmenting the infrastructure at the fields from which the planes will operate and more. Once that is paid for, you can start field operations where maintenance, fuel and spare parts are all extra.
That is the $1 trillion part of the $1.4 trillion it will cost the Pentagon to buy and operate the F-35.
The price Congress agreed to pay for an F-35A in its budget legislation for fiscal year 2017 was $119.6 million. This did not including all the concurrency costs that are now and will continue to mount up as the test discovery process proceeds.
The Marine Corps’ F-35B, which is capable of taking off from short runways and landing vertically, and the Navy’s F-35C, built to operate from aircraft carriers, will be much more expensive — to the tune of $166.4 million and $185.2 million per plane, respectively.
No alternative to built-in stealth?
But the main point of Birkey’s article is that the F-35’s stealth capability makes it the only option available to the U.S. military. However, this largely assumes the strategic value of stealth.
Stealth capabilities aren’t as important as the Pentagon would have you believe.
For one thing, F-35 proponents have greatly exaggerated the threat of radar surface-to-air guided missiles, or SAMs. Since pilots can both out-maneuver and jam SAMs, they rarely manage to hit even non-stealth aircraft.
During the Vietnam War, radar-guided missiles achieved less than two kills for every 100 the North Vietnamese fired at American planes. In conflicts since then, kill rates have remained in the one percent to five percent range.
During Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq, 2,200 coalition planes flew 116,000 sorties. Iraqi troops only claimed 24 planes with missiles — a loss rate of only two in 10,000.
By contrast, Baghdad’s forces destroyed 33 percent more planes with anti-aircraft guns, for which stealth provides little or no protection. For that reason alone, stealth capability is hardly worth the price.
In the relatively rare event SAMs do work, stealth to counter them may not. We saw this clearly in 1999, when a Serbian missile brigade shot down an F-117 stealth fighter with an obsolete Soviet era SA-3 surface to air missile — a system the Kremlin first fielded in 1961.
Serbian crews discovered they could detect the stealth aircraft by using their missile battery’s long-wave search radar. Then, with the help of spotters and the missile’s own guidance radars, the Serbs were able to track, target and kill the stealthy jet. To show that was no fluke, the Serbian SAMs hit and damaged another F-117 so badly it never flew again.
What makes this a pointed lesson for today is that the F-117 is actually stealthier than the F-35.
Long before the Serbian anti-stealth successes of 1999, as far back as the 1940 Battle of Britain, the world was awash in long wavelength search radars. Unaffected by the special shapes and coatings of modern stealth aircraft, these search radars easily detect any of today’s stealth airplanes, including the F-35.
After World War II, the Russians continued building such radars and are now selling modern, highly mobile, truck-mounted digital versions on the open market for prices as low as $10 million. The Chinese and the Iranians have followed suit.
Even simpler and harder to counter than a long wavelength search radar is the VERA-NG, a Czech Army passive detection system sold internationally that uses three or more receiving antennas spaced well apart to detect and track radar-emitting fighters and bombers. The system’s central analysis module calculates the time difference of the signals reaching the receivers to identify, locate and track up to 200 aircraft transmitting radar signals.
Because the F-35’s main air-to-air weapon is a beyond visual range radar missile, the AIM-120, the F-35 has to use a large radar transmitting extremely high-power signals that an enemy can detect at several times the range at which the Joint Strike Fighter can see targets. The fighter jet is thus vulnerable to passive tracking systems. The VERA-NG passive system costs substantially less than a search radar.
So, the American people must to spend billions of dollars for a stealth capability our potential adversaries can defeat with only millions of dollars? That math doesn’t add up.
The myth about old aircraft
There is no question that the military needs new aircraft — if and only if they’re more combat effective than the legacy fighters they replace. The Pentagon-promoted notion that airplanes wear out after a certain number of hours is ludicrously wrong.
When planes are adequately maintained, they can fly essentially forever. Just look at the 55-year-old B-52s the Air Force keeps upgrading or the 70-year-old DC-3s, of which 400 are still in daily service.
Nor is it true that aging planes become too expensive to maintain — as proven by the fact that our oldest F-16s, F-15s, and F-18s are still cheaper to fly per hour than the newer models of the same aircraft.
What is true is that the Air Force and Navy have deliberately slashed flying hours and maintenance budgets for older legacy fighters over the last decade and a half. The services did this because those in charge preferred buying new and untested F-35s and other high-dollar “recapitalizations” rather than adequately maintaining and training their current forces.
As was clearly predictable, that led to significantly increased accident rates due to both decaying pilot skills and inadequate maintenance.
Just in the last six months of 2016, nine older model F/A-18s crashed, several costing the lives of the pilots.
Pilots are simply unable to get enough hours in the air to maintain skills to fly safely, much less to develop high level combat skills.
Is it really possible to change business as usual?
The F-35 is a historic litmus test. If the Trump administration settles for the cosmetics of a negotiated discount on the F-35’s sticker price, most likely through a volume discount, then we’ll know that business as usual reigns and the troops come second.
If the administration seizes this opportunity and converts the failure of the most expensive weapons program into a true strengthening of American air power, then for the first time since the birth of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex in 1945, we’ll know for sure the troops come first.
Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight, where this article originally appeared.