- - Monday, March 15, 2021

To be the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, has to be highly partisan and comprehensively loyal to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s radical agenda. Thus it’s tempting to ignore what he said about the F-35, which is supposed to be the top-line fighter for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines for the next 30 years. 

But given what we already know about the F-35, and what Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Brown recently admitted about it, it would be a big mistake to ignore what Mr. Smith said. 

Calling for the termination of the F-35 program on March 5, Mr. Smith said that he wanted to, “ … stop throwing money down that particular rathole.” He said, “What does the F-35 give us? And is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending that much money for such a low capability because, as you know, the sustainment costs are brutal.” 

The F-35 has been plagued by myriad serious problems and extremely high cost since the contract for it was signed 20 years ago. It required that one aircraft design would satisfy all three services and that production would take place concurrently with development which creates a whole different set of problems.

That approach created two sets of problems. First, because the physical differences in operating from a carrier deck and a paved runway, no aircraft can meet both the Air Force’s and Navy’s requirements. Second, that concurrent development requires repetitive engineering and multiplies costs.

Computer modeling was used to design the aircraft, but when the first F-35s took to the skies they performed far differently — and much less well — than the computers said they would. As a result, the computer models and the aircraft’s design have evolved continuously necessitating the refitting of already-delivered aircraft to the new designs again and again at significant cost.

(About 500 of the planned 2,500 F-35s have already been delivered — problems and all — to the Air Force, Navy and Marines.) 

A number of serious problems are still being encountered with the F-35’s computer software. The various computers and computer-controlled equipment in the fighter run on more than 25 million lines of code. The developers soon found that when they fixed one software problem, three more would result from the fix. The software troubles, and other major problems, remain unresolved.

The result is that the F-35 is what the Air Force used to call a “hangar queen.” The aircraft is so unreliable that it can’t be depended on to fly and fight when the stuff hits the fan. Ellen Lord, the outgoing undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said on Jan. 19 that only 36% of F-35s were fully mission capable at that point. That means if you have ten F-35s on the flight line, only three or four are going to be able to fight that day.  

Much of that problem results from the fact that too many companies — spread around over a dozen nations — make parts for the F-35. According to a November report by the Government Accountability Office, “… the F-35 supply chain does not have enough spare parts available to keep aircraft flying enough of the time necessary to meet warfighter requirements.”

All that adds up to a pretty lousy return on an immense investment for the most expensive weapon system the U.S. has ever bought 

This year’s budget for the F-35 is $398 billion. That’s more than the total being spent on the three top Navy shipbuilding programs (ballistic missile and attack submarines and destroyers) and $44 billion more than the total expenditures on 11 other major DoD weapon system programs ranging from the KC-46 tanker aircraft to the CH-47 helicopters. 

Mr. Smith’s remarks came days after Gen. Brown admitted, in carefully hedged terms, that the F-35 is a failure. The F-35 was supposed to be the “new 5th generation” fighter that would fill all the Air Force’s and Navy’s needs. Announcing a new study of tactical fighter requirements, Gen. Brown said that the Air Force needs not only a sixth-generation fighter but also a new “5th-generation minus / 4.5th-generation aircraft.” 

That means the Air Force and Navy need — right now — to fill the gap created by the F-35’s inability to perform its mission. They will have to resort to a mixture of updated far older F-16s, F-15s and F-18s to fill that gap. It’s hard to see how they can afford those aircraft, and the new 6th-generation fighters, if money is still being poured into the F-35.

In 2014, the most honest verdict on the F-35 was delivered by the then-commander of Air Combat Command, Gen. Michael Hostage. He said that unless the F-22 was flying with the F-35 to defend it, the F-35 was “irrelevant” to air warfare. The Air Force has only about 185 F-22s. You can’t protect 2,500 F-35s with 185 F-22s.

If Gen. Brown had spoken forthrightly, he would have said flatly that the F-35 is a failure. The F-35 costs too much and performs too poorly to justify continuing to purchase it. It’s long past time to cancel the F-35 program, fill the gap it creates, and get on with the development of new fighters that can meet the warfighters’ needs.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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