The F-35: Super Plane for Super Cruise

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Air Force photo / Senior Airman Julianne Showalter

An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter flies over Florida's Eglin Air Force Base last month.

Tom Cruise steps onto the tarmac – cool and confident in his flight suit and dark aviator glasses. While his co-stars still call him Maverick, this isn’t Top Gun and that’s not an F-14 fighter plane. This is Top Gun 2, and the fighter plane he’s getting into is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – the most expensive weapon program ever, which is slated to be the mainstay of the U.S. Navy, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps for decades to come.

While the recently announced Top Gun 2 won’t be the F-35’s first movie appearance – an F-35 tried in vain to kill Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard, and the F-35 had a cameo in The Avengers – the announcement that it will be the plane of choice for Maverick’s triumphant return to the big-screen has sparked controversy given the program’s celebrity-like exorbitant spending and breakdowns.

The technology news website Gizmodo quipped: “The first question: What will Tom Cruise do? Stand on a runway, staring at his grounded F-35?”

It’s not just technical problems that plague the plane. A couple months ago, the Department of Defense released new estimates for how much the F-35 will cost over its lifetime, and the price tag is staggering. The entire program is now expected to cost taxpayers nearly $1.51 trillion, more than any weapon in history. Those costs grew by more than $100 billion from last year’s estimate.

Each individual plane now is estimated to cost $160 million – more than double the $74.5 million the DoD initially estimated they’d cost — and four times the price tag on the F-14 Tomcat that Maverick flew in the original movie [editor’s note: movie-ticket prices have gone up, too – but merely doubled since the 1986 Top Gun].

There’s ample reason to believe that even these astronomical costs will only grow.

First, the DoD continues to lowball the cost to operate the program, meaning the estimated $1.11 trillion in operating costs for the F-35 will only climb. These cost estimates assume that the F-35 will not face major design changes. Yet “much of its developmental and operational testing remains and the risk of future design changes is significant,” the Government Accountability Office recently warned.

Major design changes mean increased costs. The GAO said some critical technologies were “not mature and present significant development risks” and a Pentagon review stated that there were major issues whose combined impact “results in a lack of confidence in the design stability.”

The programs exorbitant cost crowds out funding for other military needs. According to the GAO, the future procurement funding needed for the F-35 is “enough to fund the remaining procurement costs of the next 15 largest programs.” While it’s true that the F-35 is, by design, a large program, it was supposed to be affordable. But the dreams of a cheap F-35 are long in the past.

There is an alternative, however – the FA-18 E/F Super Hornet. Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars can be saved by replacing the most expensive and troublesome variants of the F-35 – the Navy and Marine variants – with Super Hornets (the Air Force variant is having markedly fewer problems and appears to be substantially cheaper than the other two).

While the Super Hornets lack the F-35’s stealth, the U.S. military does not need this capability on all of its planes—the Air Force has stealthy F-22 fighters, and its own variant of the F-35, as well as the B-2 stealth bomber and a planned new long-range bomber, not to mention the possibility of stealthy drones.

Otherwise, Super Hornets have many capabilities that rival the F-35. The Super Hornet, unlike the F-35, is proven, and has “established an extraordinary record in operations around the globe, in combat, under all kinds of conditions,” according to Admiral John Harvey, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. And, despite the recent crash in Virginia Beach, the planes mishap rate is, “as low as it’s ever been in naval aviation,” according to Rear Admiral Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic.

Combine this with the fact that the Pentagon can buy three Super Hornets for the price of one F-35 Navy or Marine variant — and that these variants cost six times as much to fly as a Super Hornet — and the choice is easy.

The F-35 may be a movie star, but it’s draining the Pentagon budget like Lindsay Lohan drains cocktails. The time has come for Congress and the Pentagon to stop believing that the F-35 program, in its current form of producing three variants, will ever deliver the capabilities it promised at a price taxpayers can afford, and start considering viable options. Our economic and national security demand it.

Ben Freeman is a National Security Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). He specializes in Department of Defense personnel issues, weapons procurement, and the impact of lobbying by foreign governments on U.S. foreign policy. He’s the author of a forthcoming book on lobbying by foreign governments in the U.S., The Foreign Policy Auction, due out this summer.