America’s military is being redefined but not by changes in strategy or evolutions of the threats we face. The redefinition is the unplanned result of budgetary constraints and bad choices of weapon systems we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to buy.
The two effects of this redefinition combine to make their sum greater than their parts. First, there are missions our forces are in the process of abandoning because their shrinking size doesn’t allow performance of them. Second, the ability to perform essential missions is being dangerously abandoned in the design of the most expensive weapons we are buying.
For example, the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (the LCS, known in defense circles as the “little crappy ship”) is supposed to operate in shallow coastal waters. But as the Defense Department’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation said, it’s so lightly armed and armored it won’t survive in combat. Nevertheless, the little crappy ship is still being bought at a cost of about $475 million each.
The worst example is the F-35 joint strike fighter. Purchases of the F-35 fighter aircraft, the most expensive weapon system the Pentagon has ever bought, are being accelerated. It will cost more than $400 billion to buy about 2,500 of them and another $1 trillion to own and operate for the 50 years of their projected life. For that entire time, absorbing a huge chunk of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps budgets, the F-35 will be the fighter that ate the defense budget.
The F-35 is supposed to be all things to all services, replacing the F-15, F-16, A-10 and F/A-18. The Marines want it to provide close air support for troops on the ground. The Air Force and the Navy want it to be both an attack aircraft and an air superiority fighter. After nearly 14 years of development, it’s clear that it can’t perform either of those missions well.
The Air Force has always taken its responsibility for air supremacy seriously. (The last American ground troop to be killed by an enemy aircraft died in 1953). That track record is currently maintained by the F-22 Raptor, a highly-capable fifth-generation fighter that can engage and kill any other aircraft.
In the days the “fighter mafia” ran the Air Force, there was a mix of “high” and “low” fighters. The F-22 is the air dominance fighter and the F-35 was supposed to be the “low” fighter, responsible for strike missions and close air support. But the problem is obvious: With 2,500 F-35s and only 187 F-22s, the F-35 is going to have to defend itself most of the time. It can’t, because its designers — and the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps leadership — neglected to deal with the simple math to figure out that you can’t protect 2,400 F-35s with just 187 F-22s. That leaves our air forces unprepared to fight other nations’ best such as Russia’s Su-35 or China’s J-10. To build fighters that can’t makes no sense.
At that point, the Pentagon leaders’ responsibility required them to either redesign the F-35 to give it the ability to win air-to-air fights or resume production of F-22s. They did neither.
Last year, Gen. Michael Hostage, then commander of Air Combat Command, said that without the F-22 flying with it to provide defense, the F-35 “will be irrelevant.”
Proof of Gen. Hostage’s judgment came in a Lockheed Martin test pilot report published by the War is Boring blog. The report was of a flight in which the F-35 engaged an F-16 (which the Air Force has flown since 1980) in a mock dogfight to test the F-35’s computer “laws.”
Computer “laws” govern the performance of modern aircraft. Sometimes overriding the pilot’s controls, the computer’s programming governs what the aircraft does. In the F-35, everything — from the aircraft’s ability to turn to how much thrust the engine is producing — is a function of the 8-million-plus lines of code in the onboard computer.
The War is Boring blog reported that the test pilot determined that the F-35 couldn’t perform one of its most basic functions: winning a dogfight even against a 1980s vintage F-16.
The test pilot’s report confirms what Gen. Hostage said. It says, for example, that “Overall, the most noticeable characteristic of the F-35A in a visual engagement was its lack of energy maneuverability.” Energy maneuverability is a combination of the power of the engine to get an aircraft into (or out of) a “shooting solution” and the aircraft’s control surfaces — wings, rudders and such — to do the same. The single-engine F-35 is underpowered and its control surfaces too small to maneuver effectively and win a dogfight.
The test pilot’s report also says that the F-35 helmet — which has to be tailored for each pilot at the cost of about $400,000 — “was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft.” In a dogfight that too would be fatal.
Those design problems can’t be fixed by tinkering with the software. They represent enormous risks and not just for pilots in an aircraft that’s not capable of winning a dogfight. The danger of losing air dominance puts every American soldier on the ground at risk, and our nation at risk of losing battles or even wars.
The F-35 program is an example of how weapons shouldn’t be bought. It needs to be stopped in its tracks until all of its substantial design problems are solved in a manner that enables it to perform all of the missions required of it.
• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”