The Pentagon’s top brass are second-guessing the F-35 Lightning — the most expensive weapons system in history — as spending cuts tighten the military’s budget and a new report says F-35 pilots can’t see that well out of the cockpit.
The Navy’s former top officer believes the Defense Department should consider replacing the F-35A — the Air Force’s variant of the so-called Joint Strike Fighter — with the aircraft carrier model, the F-35C.
But Air Force pilots dismiss the idea of flying a heavier fighter jet, and instead propose that the Marine Corps abandon its version, the F-35B, arguing that its costly helicopter-style landing feature is useful only at air shows.
The debate comes as a new Pentagon test report reveals significant problems in the ability of an F-35 pilot to see the enemy from the cockpit. The blame for the defect falls on the design of the pilot-escape system used in all three variants of the advanced stealth fighter.
Started a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the F-35 Lightning project — contracted to aircraft-maker Lockheed Martin and engine-manufacturer Pratt & Whitney — has been beset by cost overruns and technical flaws.
The Lightning was supposed to be in full production this year to replace aging F-16 Falcons, F-18 Hornets and the Harrier jump jet. But full production is not expected before 2019, at the earliest.
Even if the automatic spending cuts that began Friday give way to a White House-Congress budget deal, the Pentagon’s 10-year spending plan likely will shrink — making key concerns of the nearly $400 billion cost to produce 2,457 F-35s and the estimated $1 trillion cost to operate a fleet of them.
Retired Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011, wrote a recent article for his new employer, the Hoover Institution, on how to reduce military costs. One idea: scrap the F-35A.
“My whole idea there was, even though there are a lot of commonalities, if you had one conventional takeoff-and-landing [feature], would you save on training pipeline? Would you save on the depot level work because of the fact you just have that one variant going through rework lines and perhaps logistics would come down?” Adm. Roughead told The Washington Times. “And then software changes would be more common to that one variant.”
Adm. Roughead, a career surface ship and fleet commander, said he canceled the DDG 1000, a next-generation destroyer, in 2008 because of projected long-term costs.
Pentagon officials have said in audit reports that the F-35’s 30-year, $1 trillion operating bill is not affordable.
“Both the Navy and the Air Force would fly the C,” Adm. Roughead said of his proposal. “You need the [F-35] coming off of aircraft carriers simply because of what the environments are going to be 10, 20, 30 years from now.
“You’ve got to stay with the carrier variant. But because it’s a conventional takeoff-and-landing aircraft, can you then make that one of two, as opposed to one of three, variants?”
The Air Force fighter community wants its own lighter-weight plane. And it is doing some second-guessing of its own on why the Pentagon agreed to a special vertical landing-and-takeoff Marine Corps version, the F-35B.