Congress Greases Flightpath for the F-35 Boondoggle
Despite warnings of poor performance and spiraling costs from at least three oversight agencies, both Congressional armed services committees 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.
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” 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. 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 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.
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. 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 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, 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 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.
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. 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. 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 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.
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), 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 in Washington, D.C.