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Congress Greases Flightpath for the F-35 Boondoggle

Despite warnings of poor performance and spiraling costs from at least three [1] oversight [2] agencies [3], both Congressional armed services committees [4] voted to add new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to the president’s appropriations request and approved a three-year block buy.

The final number has yet to be hashed out, but if the Senate gets its way, taxpayers will buy 94 F-35s in 2018. That would mean more than 800 F-35s would be purchased before the design has been fully tested [5].

Congress’s actions here are disappointing. What is even more disturbing is the justification provided for those actions in the House. (The Senate language is not yet available.) Buried deep within Rep. Mac Thornberry’s (R-Texas) “Chairman’s Mark” [6] of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is a lengthy rationalization of the F-35 double-down plan. The authors of the offending appendix include lots of details, but they failed to give a complete picture. The full story, of course, would have undermined the current appeal for digging farther into the F-35 hole.

The report says the House Armed Services Committee “understands” the F-35 program has completed approximately 90 percent of the development phase. It is basing this understanding on testimony provided by the former program executive officer, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan and three other flag officers, on February 16 [7]. The witnesses—whose job it is to be boosters of the program—said it had essentially turned a corner and painted a rosy picture of its future.

The casual viewer of the hearing would hardly know there have ever been any problems with the F-35. It was like tuning into a heinous murder trial only during the character witness testimony for the defense. Perhaps that was the idea. Noticeably absent from the panel [8] were any representatives from the Pentagon’s top weapons-testing office or any other independent analysts. Their presence would have changed the tone significantly since less than four weeks before the hearing, the testing office released a scathing, 62-page assessment of the F-35 program as part of its FY2016 Annual Report [9].

The F-35 program is still plagued with serious design problems and still requires years of testing before anyone will know if it is capable and suitable for combat [10]. Nevertheless, the public would have no idea if all they did was listen to the carefully selected panel in February. (There no mention of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation [1] report in the NDAA justification.)

The program office claims a block buy would result in $2 billion in savings since most development is almost complete. It is notable that this claim has not been independently verified by Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation [2], the agency that must do so before similar kinds of block buys for other weapons programs can be approved. What both the program office and the committee’s report language neglect to mention is that the final 10 percent of development left to go actually includes some of the most difficult and critical work needed if the F-35 is ever going to perform the missions [11] Lockheed Martin promised—and for which the American people are paying a premium. This includes close air support, air interdiction, and destruction of enemy air defense missions, which require multiple aircraft networked together to perform as advertised. So far, the F-35 program has not been able to get the necessary data sharing systems to work properly [12].

Until the program successfully completes combat testing, it is impossible to know if any of the parts to be purchased will work in the final design. The program has already been forced to redesign major components, including the landing gear and wings for the F-35C. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) also recently reported that costs to fix design flaws discovered so far have already climbed to $1.77 billion [13]. As the program gets further into the testing, more design problems will be uncovered, pushing those costs even higher.

The figure quoted by the GAO is based on known design flaws exposed during the easiest testing exercises on the 217 F-35s already purchased. If authorized, the order would purchase parts for approximately 440 more. At the same discovery rate of future design flaws, the cost to retrofit the aircraft to be built under this authorization would be $3.6 billion. That is nearly double the purported $2 billion the F-35 Program office claims would be saved with an economic order quantity.

Until the F-35 program completes the initial combat testing process, no one will really know how many more design flaws will remain and what the real costs to retrofit corrections onto aircraft already purchased will be.

The committee’s report language suggests what can generously be described as a casual interest in the program’s performance goals. Their obvious priority is pushing the F-35 into full rate production, saying that could happen as early as 2021. But there was not a single mention of operational testing. This determines whether a weapon system will be effective in combat and must be completed before a program can legally progress to full rate production [14]. The program has yet to begin this process, and may not be able to until 2020. Some of this confusion is understandable. After so many years—this program started in 2001—everyone hoped the program would be further along by now. Nevertheless, this program has traveled so far through the looking glass that two services have already fallaciously declared their F-35s ready for combat and the American people have bought and paid for hundreds of so-far unproven prototypes.

President Trump’s instincts about the F-35 program were good during the campaign and the transition. He famously criticized the program in a series of tweets [15] after the election, suggesting the Pentagon buy an updated version of the F-18 Super Hornet instead. But it appears the program’s officials were able to convince him he had negotiated the price down by $600 million, when in fact they had been saying for months before the election the price would come down by that much already [16].

As a result, the president suddenly began describing the F-35 as “fantastic” when the overwhelming evidence says it is anything but, considering that aside from being the most expensive aircraft in U.S. history (an estimated $1.1 trillion in longterm cost to taxpayers [17]), it’s still grounded as far as actual combat is concerned.

Perhaps the F-35 is inevitable. The program is certainly structured in such a way to make it so, with jobs distributed across nearly every congressional district. With all the discussion in recent years of acquisition reform, Congress’s blatant disregard of performance shortfalls and significant safety risks to pilots, best practices to reduce cost risks to taxpayers, and the laws Congress put in place to prevent schedule delays and cost overruns in major weapons programs prove they are only interested in carrying on as usual. This case proves the American people should not expect accountability for performance, cost overruns, and schedule delays any time soon.

(Ret.) Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier is an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran. He currently serves as a national security and military analyst for the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project [18] in Washington, D.C.

25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Congress Greases Flightpath for the F-35 Boondoggle"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 10, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

“As a result, the president suddenly began describing the F-35 as “fantastic” when the overwhelming evidence says it is anything but, considering that aside from being the most expensive aircraft in U.S. history (an estimated $1.1 trillion in longterm cost to taxpayers) . . .”

He seems quite taken in by a couple of stars on one’s shoulder pads. It took students less than a day to unravel the F-35’s promise.

I am unclear why they just didn’t upgrade the F22.

But I suppose the back story is jobs and ore jobs. Which is keynsian press from washington for the last twenty years. So I guess if one is going to have a welfare system for corporate USA, at least it is one putting people to work. At least one hopes that it is.

Maybe some background on defense aviation competitive weapons programs are in order.

#2 Comment By bronze surfer On July 10, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

I have been following the F-35 program since it began, mostly through articles in Air International and other aviation publications. A recent article pointed out flaws that should have been detected and corrected years ago, and just stupid stuff like no one figuring out possible maintainence issues in the small hangars of the Amphibious Assault ships.

However, this far in what choices do we have? Go back to the drawing board and start over with a sixth generation design and another 25 year delay?
My own opinion is adopt what can be adopted to updated new build Teen series fighters, low rate production of the A and C models and sit down and think real hard about what we want in next generation tactical aircraft. =

#3 Comment By Whine Merchant On July 11, 2017 @ 2:14 am

Duh – it’s because it is not about defence. It is:
– socialism for the high-tech manufacturing industry
– squeezing China and Russia to spend more on their military procurement;
– legislators’ re-elections.

#4 Comment By MEOW On July 11, 2017 @ 6:43 am

Has Congress not heard of the concept: Sunk costs are irrelevant costs? Retool the F22 and start again.

#5 Comment By Andrew Ryback On July 11, 2017 @ 8:00 am

Sounds good to me!

#6 Comment By Chris Chuba On July 11, 2017 @ 8:26 am

I’m not an aeronautics engineer or a pilot so I’ll resist the urge to throw darts at the aircraft.

However, I do feel reasonably qualified to comment on the economics of it. I always thought that the argument of ‘we’ll save money by rushing it into serial production to get economy of scale’ was a joke. Why do we need 2,000 of these in 3yrs? The next argument will be that we have to keep buying them to keep the production lines going so that we can keep building them and the replacement parts.

This is the problem with having the largest air force. As soon as you roll out the new stuff, it starts depreciating and you have to replace all of it with the next round of expensive stuff.

Cruz quipped, ‘if you think Defense is expensive, think of how expensive it is when you don’t have it’.

Well here’s my quip, ‘U.S. and the Soviet Union: Trading Places’

(Oh, the F35 looks like the F4 so I guess I broke my promise, don’t know if that’s bad but it reminds me of the flying bus.)

#7 Comment By Uncle Billy On July 11, 2017 @ 8:47 am

The F-35 is not as good of a fighter aircraft as the F-16 or F-18. The F-35 is not as good of a ground support attack aircraft as the old A-10. The F-35 is way over budget, but it has one huge virtue. The F-35 has subcontractors and vendors in all 50 states, thus ensuring Congressional support.

The F-35 program was designed to capture Congressional support as the primary goal. It’s value as an actual combat aircraft is secondary. The Pentagon has come up with the ultimate boondoggle.

The Air Force has a version of the F-35, as does the Navy with a carrier based version and the Marine Corps with a VSTOL version. This reminds me very much of the old F-111, which had a Navy version and an Air Force version. The problem however, was that the Navy version was too heavy to operate from aircraft carriers, and the Air Force version was not maneuverable enough to be a decent fighter, thus was used as a bomber.

It sounds good on paper to have one airframe for multiple missions, but in reality, it does not work.

#8 Comment By Howard On July 11, 2017 @ 9:53 am

It sounds like what we just went through with the Osprey.

#9 Comment By Jeeves On July 11, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

“Their presence would have changed the tone significantly since less than four weeks before the hearing, the testing office released a scathing, 62-page assessment of the F-35 program as part of its FY2016 Annual Report.”

Just scan this report. It’s under “DOD Programs,” and it’s scary. From what I, a mere citizen, can gather, the F-35 is no where close to flying combat. You may have heard the electronics and fire control are a big problem. True, but there are also bushings wearing out before they’re supposed to, a leading edge on the tail section heating up under Mach 3.5 conditions to temperatures it was never engineered for. It goes on like this for pages. By the time the F-35 is air-ready, it will be time to send it to the Smithsonian.

#10 Comment By Conewago On July 11, 2017 @ 1:34 pm

The Marines wanted a replacement for the Harrier; they wanted V/STOL. They also wanted something that could be a better dog-fighter with V/STOL capabilities. A hard thing to find.

The Air Force wanted a replacement for the F-16; they didn’t much care about V/STOL. The F-16 is a fantastic aircraft, and replacing it would always be tough

The Navy basically wanted a replacement for the F/A 18; they cared more about V/STOL than the Air Force, but a lot less than the Marines.

The Potomac defense establishment, in its infinite wisdom, decided the best thing to do would be to combine these three very different goals into one air-frame with three different variants; the F35A, F35B, and F35C.

This was a blunder so obvious that mere incompetence cannot be the only answer. Only money and a combination of inertia and bureaucratic wand-waving could convince people that one airframe could possibly supply the V/STOL desires of the Marines and the F-16-type desires of the Air Force. It is simply not realistic to make a very good anti-air aircraft on a V/STOL frame. The darned engines take up too much space. It’s that simple. Plus, as we can see, it costs a lot.

As fond as I am of the Marines, their leadership shares a substantial share of the blame.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

Another tragedy is that Marines never acquired any of the Air Force’s surplus A-10s. What a shame. Buy those things, make their wings foldable, and you’ve got one heck of a naval CAS aircraft. You can’t do great CAS with a supersonic jet!

#11 Comment By Steve Waclo On July 11, 2017 @ 3:28 pm

I guess it has been a long time since defense spending transitioned from actual, you know, defense, to a heavily subsidized job support program for contractors and congressional constituents ???.

God many after bad, anyone?

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 11, 2017 @ 7:50 pm

“The Marines wanted a replacement for the Harrier; they wanted V/STOL. They also wanted something that could be a better dog-fighter with V/STOL capabilities. A hard thing to find.”

It’s called the A-10 and the F-15.

. . . the F22

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 11, 2017 @ 7:57 pm

” V/STOL ”

The technology with VTOL is not going to be eclipsed anytime soon — the Harrier just needs some retooling. It’s funny that haven’t admitted that no single aircraft will be able to engage air, ground and VTOL/STOL.

There are just too many unique requirements. And hence the demand of how cost over runs occur. New demands made on existing products is one of the major problems.

It makes sense that contractors oblige.

#14 Comment By sherparick On July 12, 2017 @ 8:57 am

Military Keynesian spending, especially programs that fire hoses money to Defense contractors have always been popular with Conservative Democrats and Republicans law makers. As the boom in Lockheed Martin’s stock demonstrates, the CEOs and shareholders have done very well by the F-35 program and all those “fixes” it requires. That is a permanent revenue stream. Might as well buy into a Defense EFT and enjoy the ride. [19].

From Lockheed’s bottom line stand point the F-35 has been a brilliant success. [20]

And we may have fooled the Chinese into a similar dead end.

#15 Comment By Fabius On July 12, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

The F-35 has certainly had (more than) its share of problems, but I think a lot of the criticism has gone overboard.

Delays and overruns are unfortunately more the norm than the exception for big-ticket defense programs. The F-22, and the European Rafale and Typhoon fighters, all took much longer to field and were more expensive than originally intended. The F-22 actually took 14 years from contract to initial operational capability, the same as the F-35. This seems like more of a procurement reform issue, and not an F-35 specific one.

What’s often missed is that most of these programs tend to mature and prove themselves (The V-22 Osprey has turned into a very good platform after years of problems, as has the F-22). In fact, all of our teen-series jets (F-14, 15, 16, 18, etc) had some woeful early days as well. The F-16 crashed so much it was nicknamed the Lawn Dart. I think it’s more the norm for big-ticket planes to have these development bugs (you often read about in them in air plane histories as trivia “did you know that….” items).

For all the problems the F-35 has suffered, it actually hasn’t had a single crash, which is pretty remarkable. Pretty much every time one of these GAO or DOT&E reports mentions remaining problems, the Program Office has been pretty transparent in showing they were aware of the problem, and have a fix planned. In fact, the GAO recommended against block buys for the Super Hornet, just like they’re now doing for the F-35 (the Super Hornet is one of those highly regarded proven platforms that everyone now forgets ever had problems to begin with).

While it’s true the F-35 hasn’t completed all its SDD testing, it has reached initial operational capability, and has been deployed overseas. It’s also garnered a lot of praise from Red Flag, where it put up a 20:1 kill ratio. Pilot-testimony about the plane has been pretty uniformly positive. If it was as failure-prone as this article is suggesting, I’m not sure the military would’ve risked it being exposed so openly.

This all may be moot, and “inevitable” as the author points out. To that, I’d add that we really do need a couple thousand new aiframes, as our legacy aircraft are nearly worn out (most of the designs are pushing 40 years or more in age, and I think the average age of the Air Force fleet is something like 27 years old). Building upgraded teen-series planes wouldn’t actually save that much money, as the F-35 is actually now cheaper than other high-end Western fighters, and the forecast for sub-85 million price tags are now looking legitimate, rather than the pipe dream the critics claimed they were just a couple years ago.

Just my 2 cents from an amateur enthusiast whose followed the program for quite a while now.

#16 Comment By Joe On July 12, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

Congress’s actions here are disappointing.

What else can you expect from the greatest criminal enterprise the world as ever known, the US Government.

#17 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 12, 2017 @ 5:04 pm

Congress never saw a weapons program that it could not love. Specially if it brings jobs to their ditrict.

#18 Comment By DocBroom On July 12, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

I really ought not throw my two cents in here, but here goes. Has anyone heard of the TFX Project? If not maybe you’ve heard of the only piece of it that had any serviceability at all, the F-111B which was neither a fighter nor a really good bomber. The TFX was the brainchild of Robert Strange McNamara, a single airframe that would fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, state of the art with swing wings, ok not quite VSTOL but the closest thing to it at the time other than the actual Harrier airframe. But a simple lesson of history, you can get an airframe to do one mission to near perfection, you can get an airframe to do two missions pretty well, but if you try to build a do-it-all single airframe across all three services, you are building a P.O.S. that only politicians and bureaucrats will love.

#19 Comment By Fabius On July 14, 2017 @ 5:27 pm

The TFX program is a fair point, there can be danger in trying to do too much all at once.

I’m not sure that entirely applies to the F-35 though. The F-111 was supposed to be both a high-altitude fleet defense interceptor for the Navy, and a low-level “nap of the earth” penetrator for the Air Force. Those are really incompatible flight profiles.

Today, almost everything is designed to be a multirole jet fighter, and niche designs have limited utility with so much budgetary pressure to consolidate types and supply chains (look at what happened to the F-22).

The F-16 and F-18 are true multirole jets, and the French Rafale, with more varied capability, is often seen as more useful than the Eurofighter Typhoon, which emphasizes more of the traditional air superiority role.

But for multirole jets today, airframe shape and engine power don’t matter as much; the big difference is avionics and targetting pods. All you really need to do to change the F-18 from a fleet defense interceptor to a bomb truck is change the weapons loadout and targetting pods.

The F-35 is really just an evolution of that multirole philosophy, and it should be better, as it carries all its avionics and targeting pods organically (no need to switch them out, and no penalty in drag or used weapons pylons).

What’s often overlooked in the debates about the F-35 is a dogfighter, is that external stores drastically reduce a plane’s performance. Carrying fuel, weapons, and targeting pods internally mean that a fully loaded F-35 is still “clean” aerodynamically. And while a clean F-16/F-18 looks comparable to an F-35 on paper, there’s a vast difference when you load the old jets up with external stores.

#20 Comment By Hibernian On July 14, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

@ Fabius: You don’t address the one airframe for multiple missions issue. Is there a mission, or are there two missions, for which the plane might be suitable? Which service’s or services’ pilots gave the planes good ratings? What types of testing/training missions (Were there some combat missions?) did they fly in it? Could there have been some command influence on their assessments? I’m old enough to remember the TFX which was universally agreed to be a disaster.

#21 Comment By Fabius On July 15, 2017 @ 6:41 pm

@Hibernian: From what I can gather (not an expert), most modern “multirole” types of missions don’t have as much variance in terms of airframe shape as the TFX. The F-16 is considered an equally good dogfighter and light bomber, and the F-18 family pretty much does everything for the navy. The F-35 just continues this trend we’ve seen over the last four decades.

If you have a supersonic and agile aircraft that can also carry a decent payload, then the only real differences between an air-to-air mission and an air-to-ground one are the individual weapons and the relevant targeting pods you carry. There is still some niche capability with the pure air superiority role, but that’s taken care of by the F-22. The F-35 is more analogous to the F-16, which complemented the F-15 (our air superiority fighter of the time)

One of the things F-35 pilots praise the most about the plane is just how excellent the situational awareness is in it. The stealthy profile means it’s hard (not impossible) to detect, and the avionics and data-links mean F-35s can share targeting tracks between each other. An F-35 can just as easily track and engage air and surface targets, at the same time.

We saw this at the recent Red Flag exercises, where the F-35 put up 20:1 kill ratios against aggressor squadrons and simulated high-end Russian SAM systems. One of the big things taken away from the training was that F-35s were still really valuable even after firing all their weapons; they hung around inside “red” airspace undetected and quaterbacked the battled for friendly aircraft, detecting targets and directing 4th gen fighters in on them. ( [21])

If you’re referring to the different variants of the F-35 (A, B, and C models), then notice that this new idea of having vastly better information awareness than the enemy doesn’t really impact the physical shape of the aircraft anymore. The USMC’s B model, with the lift fan, carries almost as much ordinance as the A model, and has the same sensors and avionics (it’s slightly less maneuverable, and has a bit less range, but the Marines have been really open in how much they love it: [22]).

The basic gist of it, as far as I can gather, is that different missions don’t drive different physical characteristics anything like they used to. The Marine’s STOVAL requirements only refer to taking off and landing from smaller ships or rough airfields; the plane flies and fights just the same.

As for what pilots think of the plane, there’s a lot of on and off-the-record praise from U.S. pilots ( [23]).

But I think an even bigger indicator is just how many allies have signed on and are buying and training with the plane. I get that people don’t trust Lockheed Martin’s lobbying efforts, but I don’t think even LM is powerful enough to sway the defense establishments of the UK, Japan, Australia, Denmark, Norway, South Korea, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, and others. If it was just a case of wanting to buy American, they could still go for new-build F-16s or F-18s. Bottom line: the F-35s buyers seem a lot more optimistic about the plane than its domestic critics (who have a track record of being wrong on these things).

#22 Comment By Fabius On July 15, 2017 @ 6:45 pm

Followup: Sorry for length, didn’t mean to go on so long. This has turned into a pet hobbyhorse of mine.

#23 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 16, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

“We saw this at the recent Red Flag exercises, where the F-35 put up 20:1 kill ratios against aggressor squadrons and simulated high-end Russian SAM systems.”

I appreciated this information. I think it is helpful in making a sound assessment. It doesn’t mean I think it’s worth the expense. But I found this,

“We saw this at the recent Red Flag exercises, where the F-35 put up 20:1 kill ratios against aggressor squadrons and simulated high-end Russian SAM systems.”

So in a dogfight with 20 fighters one F-35 eliminated all twenty at the same tome it engaged air to surface missiles.

That’s an astounding kill ratio and hard to conceive.

“One of the big things taken away from the training was that F-35s were still really valuable even after firing all their weapons; they hung around inside “red” airspace undetected and quaterbacked the battled for friendly aircraft, detecting targets and directing 4th gen fighters in on them.”

I am unclear why they needed to quarterback, I have already understood that the current air weapons systems had the capability of detecting targets. Curious how much more helpful target detection can get.

#24 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 16, 2017 @ 6:30 pm

I remain a fan of the F22 and remain unclear why that system was not upgraded. And comparing the previous generations: FB111, F’s 15,16 and 10 air fighters while ignoring the F-22 is curious.

Addressing the F-22 issues.

[24]

Ummmm, don’t buy that the F-22 could not have been retrofitted to address problems or upgraded at a far less expensive process.

#25 Comment By Fabius On July 17, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

@EliteCommInc:

The 20:1 figure is for all the simulated engagements between F-35s and aggressor aircraft at Red Flag. The F-35 units, as a whole, scored 20 kills for every plane they lost.

Almost all real-world air strikes use separate sensor platforms (recon planes, drones, guys on the ground, etc) to look for targets and direct the actual shooter platforms. F-16s, F-18s, or A-10s, will be directed to those targets by other platforms, and then use their own targeting pods to acquire the target and actually launch weapons.

In theory, of course, they can detect and engage targets on their own, but it’s a lot more efficient to use a dedicated sensor whose main job is to look for targets, who can then direct and coordinate all the actual shooters. It’s similar to how the E-3 Sentry Radar plane does a much better job of directing the air battle against enemy planes, even though our fighters do carry their own radars for detecting targets.

As for the F-22, it’s really more of a pure air-to-air fighter, with only limited space in its weapons bays for air-to-ground ordinance (which is what the Air Force spends most of its time doing, and what it consciously tries to do, despite what some A-10 fans continue to say about the “fighter mafia”).

I wish we had more F-22s, but they should be able to handle the air-to-air threat for the next few decades. They are slowly getting some modifications and upgrades (they recently got helmet-cued sights to launch the new AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared missile, for example).

I have heard that the F-22’s 1990’s-era technology and computers are very difficult to upgrade compared to modern avionics, which are usually much more “open” and modular. At this point, my limited knowledge of modern aviation really fails, so I can’t begin to go into all the differences. But it seems to be the case that the F-35 was made using simplified and more user-friendly technology that was pioneered in the F-22. The F-35 was deliberately designed to be rather “future-proof” and easier to upgrade. The Pentagon expects to maintain and upgrade the F-35 out through the year 2070.