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Stealth Turkey

The trillion-dollar F-35 is an easy target.

Congressman Paul Ryan’s laudable if sometimes misguided efforts to trim the federal deficit deserve support. So here’s an idea for him. Want to lose a trillion dollars in ugly budget fat? Cut off the F-35 fighter/bomber.

$1 trillion is now the estimated life-cycle cost of the F-35. Some calculations place the figure even higher, closer to $1.5 trillion.

How could the president and Congress contemplate spending that much for an airplane? The answer goes back to the futility and vast casualty count of World War I on the Western Front. Even before that bloodbath ended, men were searching for a better way to make war, one that would collapse an opponent quickly with comparatively small losses. Air power seemed to offer the answer. While strategic bombing had failed in World War I, General Giulio Douhet in Italy and General Billy Mitchell in the U.S., among others, thought it was the key to rapid victory.

It wasn’t, but as propagandists Douhet, Mitchell, and company were highly able. They created a myth that surrounded military aircraft of all types, not just bombers. The associated myth of the fighter pilot as the new white knight added gloss. Today, politicians and the public overestimate what aircraft bring to war. That is why both turn out in large numbers for air shows, and it is also why the notion of spending a trillion dollars for an airplane does not get laughed to death.

If we turn from myths to facts, we quickly see that the F-35 is unnecessary. The United States already has the world’s best fighter planes in the F-15 and F-16. How we got them is a story relevant to the F-35.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Air Force was working to design a new fighter. As each element of the bureaucracy added its favorite bells and whistles, the plane grew in size, weight, complexity, and cost, while combat effectiveness fell—just what has happened to the F-35.

Desperate to reverse the trends, the Air Force called in an ornery, eccentric fighter pilot named John Boyd. Boyd, who developed the energy-management tactics now used by fighter pilots everywhere, converted the tactical qualities a fighter needs into a new set of maneuverability measurement equations that could be applied to fighter design. He turned the incipient turkey into the F-15, a good if overlarge fighter. (Small size is important in fighters because the bigger the plane, the easier it is for the enemy to see and thus take by surprise.)

When the Air Force bureaucracy persisted in adding weight and complexity, Boyd and his civilian associate Pierre Sprey kept working the equations. Their goal was a fighter of half the size and weight of the F-15 with higher maneuverability and a lower price. The outcome of that work was the F-16, which was both better as a fighter than the F-15 and much cheaper. Needless to say, that achievement made Boyd and Sprey the most hated men in town.

The Pentagon says the F-15 and F-16 aren’t good enough now because they aren’t “stealth” aircraft like the F-35. The problem is, stealth is a fraud. Supposedly, enemy radars cannot pick up stealth planes. But they can. Early in our 1999 war with Serbia, the Serbs shot down one of the Air Force’s stealth F-117 fighter/bombers. Beside the wreckage, they put a sign, in English: “Sorry, we did not know it was supposed to be invisible.”

Long-wavelength search radars, like those used in the Battle of Britain and still sold around the world by the Russians, readily detect stealth aircraft, and there is nothing aeronautical engineers can do to get around that problem. They would have to put anti-radar coatings one or two meters thick on the planes’ wings, turning them into unflyable blobs.

The Pentagon replies that stealth will still protect the F-35 from the short-wave radars in enemy fighters and radar-guided missiles. That claim also fails under scrutiny. First, radar-guided missiles—ground-to-air and air-to-air—have a 50-year record of dismal combat performance, with probabilities of kill (Pk) seldom attaining 0.1: one hit in ten shots. It’s hard to justify a trillion dollars to defend against that.

Second, to amortize its cost, the F-35 will have to be in service for decades. How many generations of missiles can be optimized against it in that time?

Third, the short-wave radars carried by fighters can pick up stealth airplanes outside certain limited “cones” of angles. “Stealth” can defeat short-wavelength radars only if the radar is looking directly at the nose or side profile of the stealth aircraft. As soon as the stealth aircraft maneuvers and shows some of its top or bottom area, it can be seen by any radar—and in combat, any plane that fails to maneuver dies quickly. A friend of mine who flew F-16s told me he had once acquired an F-117 on radar. He said it would come and go, but the signal was strong enough to tell him something was there to go take a look at.

If an enemy fighter does go looking for an F-35, the stealth plane will be in trouble. The design characteristics required for (non-existent) stealth make the plane a grape. It has a thrust-to-weight ratio of just .85:1, less than the F-15, F-16, and most foreign fighters, which means its acceleration is sluggish. Even worse, its wing is so small that every square foot has to support more than 108 pounds of weight. That high wing loading means the F-35 is even less maneuverable than the infamous F-105 of the Vietnam War, which was hated by pilots, who called it the “Thud” or the “Lead Sled.” Its inability to maneuver made the F-105 the favorite target of Hanoi’s MiG-21 pilots. What do you call a fighter that can’t accelerate and can’t turn? A kill.

All this for just a trillion dollars.

As it happens, no thanks to the Pentagon, we have an alternative. Not only would it cost less and perform better than the F-35—anything would—it would cost less and perform better than the F-16, a much tougher challenge.

A bunch of the guys who designed the F-16 have been working on a worthy successor. They have conceptualized a superb fighter—very small, incomparably agile and lethal—that could put America ahead of everybody else for years to come. Note to Paul Ryan: it’s so cheap we could buy it and still save around a trillion dollars.

That, of course, is why the Pentagon won’t talk to the designers and Congress has never held a hearing to look at their ideas. The F-35 is good at only one mission, but that mission is the one that counts: bringing in bucks. A trillion of them, from our pockets.

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.