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The (Mismanagement) Battlespace of the F-35 Fighter Jet

It's well past time to either fix the F-35 program or let it die.

For two decades, Congress has given an open taxpayer purse to the F-35 Lightning II program. That may be ending, if senior House Democrats angered by the program’s mismanagement have their way after a congressional hearing last week. They’re right to be angry, and taxpayers should be downright furious about a program that is the most expensive weapon ever built, with a life-cycle cost greater than Russia’s GDP.

You don’t need to know rocket science to know the F-35 is a failure. You just have to know basic management for complex systems—something that Lockheed Martin, which took less than six months to develop America’s first jet fighter in World War II, should know all about. But instead of Kelly Johnson, who developed the marvelous P-38 Lightning, we have the F-35 Lightning…a marvelous example of taxpayer dollars going to die.

The Greatest Generation produced weaponry that was faster, better, cheaper—and combat ready. The F-35, meanwhile, still isn’t ready for combat 20 years after America invaded Afghanistan.

How did this happen? What would Kelly Johnson have done? The answer is a case study in politics, decision-making, and risk assessment.

Politics: The F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin is often smeared as the high-flying wingman of the Military Industrial Complex. But any after-action report should start with the buyer, who determines the value of the product: Congress. The F-35 program creates over 254,000 direct and indirect jobs across 45 states, which means that Senators and Representatives aren’t likely to cut any jobs—no matter how poorly those jobs use taxpayer money.

The executive branch also shares in this blank check excitement. The State Department encourages international coalitions by outsourcing parts manufacturing to 15 countries and 1,500 world-wide suppliers. Fourteen nations are F-35 customers. Everyone gets a cut. It’s global happiness at U.S. taxpayer expense—a worldwide jobs and defense program.

What did the American taxpayer get? The aircraft is marketed as a state-of-the-art airborne supercomputer; multi-purpose for multiple armed services for multiple countries. Taxpayers, however, are seeing a plane that’s still a risk to pilot safety and a program which spent $300 million on defective and missing parts.

Decision-Making: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was sold as a platform for the Air Force and Navy, and close ground support for the Army. Just like jobs for every congressman, each military branch and country got a common jet with different creeping missions. Land on an aircraft carrier? Bulked-up landing gear; a working tail hook would be helpful. Vertical take-off for the Marines and Japan’s jump ramps. Strafing guns for the ground-pounders. The F-35 is a quarterback that can play all positions for any team.

Or is it?

Despite cheerleading rhetoric, there is very little “Joint” in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Only some 20 percent of the different models share the same components. The promised economies of scale are so poor that the Pentagon opened an investigation into the problem, but it’s too late. Ruthless management from the Pentagon or oversight from Congress should have already commanded improvement or cessation.

Risk Assessment: The F-35 costs almost $100 million per unit and almost twice the cost per hour of the F-16 it is designed to replace. The hazard is not only the risk of the cost of loss but the opportunity cost of keeping generations ahead of our “near peers” such as the Peoples’ Republic of China, which steals and copies our technology nearly as soon as we create it. The tactic to stop this espionage is to speed up implementation by moving from the F-35’s excruciatingly slow five-decade life-cycle of building, testing, and use to the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act loop developed by 20th-century Korean War pilot and warrior-philosopher John Boyd. Gather information, assess biases, make decisions, implement decisions, and then repeat. Instead of taking decades, the F-35 might have taken just a few years to be combat-ready under the Boyd mentality and the Johnson leadership style.

Kelly Johnson died a few years before the F-35 was dreamed up, but he would have been the first to either fix the F-35 program or let it die. The F-35 is not a failure of manufacturing, or stewarding of taxpayer money, or even logistics. It is a failure of management. House Democrats are finally doing what both parties and the Pentagon should have done a long time ago. 

Jack Yoest is a leadership professor at the Catholic University of America, a  former Army captain, a corporate management consultant, and author of The Memo: How the Classified Military Document That Helped the U.S. Win WWII Can Help You Succeed in Business.

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