- - Tuesday, October 23, 2018

As a former fighter pilot and a veteran of the Desert Storm operation, I know the critical role the Air Force plays in defending the nation. From providing air support to our troops on the ground to transporting vital cargo, it is crucial that the men and women who defend America from the sky have the right tools to perform their missions. That’s why Washington’s refusal to acknowledge the safety and quality control problems with the F-35 is so concerning.

Last week’s crash of an F-35 near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, suspected to be caused by faulty fuel tubes from the historically unreliable Pratt & Whitneybuilt engines, is just the latest problem in the history of a plane that has so far failed to live up to its expectations.

The F-35 was supposed to the world’s most advanced fighter jet, but it has instead morphed into one of the world’s most dangerous planes for our own pilots. It is a sad tale of wasteful government spending, contracting cronyism, delays, and yes, engine failures. And yet congressional and defense leaders don’t appear willing to do anything about it.

Conceived to replace the aging F-16, F-15 Eagles, AV-8B Harriers, F-18 Hornets, as well as the famous A-10 Warthog ground support plane, any unbiased observers would admit the F-35 has been cursed from the very beginning.

At the time, the Marines needed a plane that could take off and land in short spaces, the Navy required one that could land on carrier decks, and the Air Force wanted a stealth plane that was more effective than its legacy aircraft and more effective at providing critical ground support.

Politicians were told the F-35 could achieve all the above. Building one plane for three branches of the military might have sounded good on paper at the time, but the project quickly ran into trouble.

The early stages of development lagged as problems continued with the Pratt & Whitney engine and flight control system. By 2004, the plane was 2,000 pounds overweight thanks to changes in design that slowed the plane and made it harder to meet the goals of each branch of the service. A report from the House Armed Services Committee even shows that the Navy’s F-35 might not be capable of functioning properly in wartime.

Not to mention the cost overruns that have been endemic of the project. To gain support for its development, the contractors spread the wealth across as many congressional districts as possible, ensuring jobs and votes for the project. Unsurprisingly, cost estimates for the F-35 over the past 15 years as a result of the contractors’ shortfalls. In 2012, the cost of the program was estimated at $320 billion and two years later, the GOA determined that the operating costs of the plane were 79 percent higher than the aircraft it was intended to replace. It’s now the most expensive military equipment program in history.

Ignoring these security and cost concerns, Congress appropriated another $2.6 billion in earmarks for an additional twenty F-35 fighter planes despite a June 2018 GOA report finding significant technical problems.

And, despite last week’s failure seemingly being caused by the Pratt & Whitney engine, on Monday 80 percent of the jets were put back into the air with little dialogue started about the engine’s recurring functional problems. This is a textbook example of the alarming lack of concern that many Washington insiders have demonstrated about the array of issues that have arisen with many parts and aspects of the F-35 over the past decade. Taxpayers, as well as the men and women who defend America’s freedom from the cockpits of these planes, deserve better.

While program officers may have once publicly disagreed with Sen. John McCain that the F-35 JSF program is “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule, and performance,” the fact is that each passing failure has made it harder and harder for defense leaders to ignore the clear issues that exist.

For this reason and more, it should only be a matter of time before Washington leaders begin to demand stricter quality control measures and put an end to recklessly developing and procuring aircrafts simultaneously once and for all.

Or at least one can hope.

• Shak Hill, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, is a political activist that spent 9 years as a pilot in the Air Force

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