- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2021

The world’s most advanced military aircraft may be forced to adjust its flight plan — if it does not want to be grounded forever.

The Pentagon’s vaunted F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, a key cog in the U.S. military’s 21st-century battle plan, is facing brutal blowback from all corners amid seemingly never-ending production delays and an eye-popping price tag of $1.7 trillion and climbing.

In defense and national security circles in Washington, a once-unthinkable proposition is now open for debate: Should the Defense Department pull the plug on the entire enterprise, or at least scale it back dramatically and shift resources elsewhere amid a looming budget crunch?

With President Biden and his new Pentagon team vowing to take a fresh look at virtually all parts of the defense budget, and with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith now publicly calling for an end to the bottomless “rathole” of F-35 funding, the momentum seems to be building against the aircraft.

Money and politics aren’t the only reason the fighter is attracting flak these days. Some analysts say it is getting harder and harder to ignore evidence that the plane simply can’t deliver on all of its lofty promises.

“This was a flawed concept from the very beginning. When this aircraft was nothing more than sketches on the back of a napkin, this was doomed to fail,” said Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps captain and now a military fellow at the Project On Government Oversight. Mr. Grazier tracks the F-35 program extensively and has emerged as one of its most vocal critics.

”When you try to build an aircraft that can perform all of these missions from the very beginning, it’s going to fail,” he said.

‘Needed to win’

The core selling point of the F-35 is what detractors now point to as its biggest flaw: Its vast, unprecedented range of capabilities, along with the Pentagon’s plan to use the plane across the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, replacing numerous aging aircraft in each of those services. 

Far more than just a fighter jet, the F-35 is cast as an almost otherwordly machine that can handle surveillance and reconnaissance missions, provide air support to ground troops, take on enemy aircraft in the sky, conduct electronic warfare, and undertake a host of other tasks that make it a far more advanced and versatile plane than anything else in the sky anywhere in the world.

The Pentagon and lead contractor Lockheed Martin insist that the aircraft and its unique, multifunctional design make it irreplaceable, and they vehemently push back on the idea that there are serious discussions about scaling back the program.

There is also widespread support among uniformed leaders, at least publicly. Adm. John C. Aquilino, nominated to lead the critical U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told a Senate panel last week the fighter is “needed to win” the wars of tomorrow, reflecting a strong chorus that insists that the skeptics simply don’t understand the F-35 and what it can do.

They argue, for example, that the F-35’s broad portfolio — and its ability to handle a list of jobs that previously would’ve required several different plane models — must be taken into account when assessing the program’s performance and its role in warfare moving forward.

“Why would you want to terminate, reduce or otherwise decrease investment in one of — if not the most — cost-effective weapons systems the Department of Defense is producing?” said retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

”The F-35 gets far more done with fewer aircraft and does so at far less risk to our men and women who expose themselves to threats from our adversaries,” he told The Times in an interview. “So, if two F-35s can accomplish what it takes 20 last-generation or lesser capable aircraft [to do], then the F-35 needs to be allocated at a 10-to-one cost advantage” compared to other aircraft.

Top Defense Department officials say the aircraft will hold its own moving forward, even as sophisticated unmanned drones become more prevalent in the skies, rejecting the notion that investing in long-term manned aircraft programs is a strategic blunder, the equivalent of fighting the last air war.

“The F-35 weapons system enables U.S. services, allies and partners to remain ahead of tomorrow’s advanced threats,” said Stacy Cummings, performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment at the Pentagon. “The ability to stay ahead of our adversaries in the high-end fight is inextricably linked to our ability to deliver high-quality software to the F-35 air system at speed, and we remain focused on this challenge,” 

Shutting down the F-35 would not just be painful to its American contractors, which include suppliers in virtually every state and congressional district. By design, the ambitious program also extends beyond U.S. shores, with the Pentagon and private industry working with partners around the world.

The F-35, Lockheed Martin says in its promotional literature, is “the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft in the world, giving pilots an advantage against any adversary and enabling them to execute their mission and come home safe.”

Since the U.S. defense giant rolled out the first F-35 Lightning II at its Texas production plant in 2006, more than 620 aircraft have been delivered so far. Ten military services in seven countries have begun using the plane, Pentagon officials said, and six military services from five countries, including branches of the U.S. armed forces, have flown operational missions with the F-35.

Capability vs. cost

While supporters argue the F-35 has delivered unmatched capability for the price, some key stakeholders believe the opposite is proving true.

Mr. Smith, a Washington state Democrat, recently pointed to the ballooning long-term maintenance costs of the program as one of the central reasons why the Pentagon must begin looking at alternatives. He and other skeptics believe that the ever-rising price and huge amount of required, regular maintenance make the F-35 ill-suited to be the do-everything aircraft envisioned by the Pentagon at the outset of the program.

“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” he said at a Brookings Institution event earlier this month. “What I’m going to try to do is figure out how we can get a mix of fighter attack aircraft that’s the most cost-effective.”

“A big part of that is finding something that doesn’t make us have to rely on the F-35 for the next 35 years,” Mr. Smith said.

The whopping $1.7 trillion price tag is the lifetime cost of the entire F-35 program, covering flight time, maintenance, software and all other expenses associated with the aircraft’s use in the coming decades. It’s unclear exactly how much has been spent to date, but continuing the program as currently constructed would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, especially if plans to build and deliver thousands of new planes continue on schedule.

Days after Mr. Smith’s “rathole” declaration, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that the F-35’s Block 4 modernization program — part of the ongoing effort to keep the aircraft and its vast array of systems fully updated — has grown by $1.9 billion since 2019. The effort will now extend to 2027, a year longer than initially expected. Recent studies by the congressional watchdog agency also have raised concerns about the production and delivery of new software, among what critics say are a host of other major issues.

Lockheed Martin officials said that they have worked with Pentagon officials to create a software “independent review team” that has made “significant progress” in finding ways to deliver aircraft on time and on budget. The company also said that its cutting-edge aircraft is vital to U.S. national security.

“Lockheed Martin understands the importance of advanced capabilities insertion and is focused on continuing to deliver the most capable tactical fighter in the world, the only one more capable than the Chinese,” a company spokesperson told The Times. ”There is nothing comparable in the world today to the F-35 in terms of survivability, connectivity and lethality.”

Pentagon spokesperson Jessica Maxwell said that “the Department of Defense is committed to the F-35 as the tactical air system of choice,” while stressing that the department’s F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) is working to fix problems in the program.

“Today, software quality is missing the mark, which is driving increased cost and delays,” she said. “The JPO is working closely with industry to institutionalize rapid improvements in the F-35 software factory and ensure we deliver an affordable F-35 capability that maintains overmatch throughout its service life.”

Despite those pledges of support, analysts say there has been enough public skepticism by prominent Pentagon officials in recent months to suggest the F-35 may be on shaky ground.

During his final week in office, for example, then-Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller had a less-than-flattering take on the aircraft.

”I gotta tell you, yesterday we were talking to some guy, some lieutenant colonel, or colonel, [I] said ‘What are you flying?’ [He] said ‘F-35.’ I was like, ‘That’s a piece of …,’” Mr. Miller told reporters in January, stopping himself just before completing his thought.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown earlier this month seemed to back away from a key piece of the F-35’s rationale: that it can essentially do it all for the American military.

“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” he said. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our high end. We want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight.”

Gen. Brown later reiterated his overall commitment to the F-35 program, as have other top Pentagon officials.

Still, specialists believe that if such comments are slipping into public view, it’s likely that the F-35’s future may look even bleaker behind the scenes.

“I looked at that and said, ‘You know what? This might be the beginning of the end,’” said Mr. Grazier, the Project on Government Oversight analyst. “When those [kinds of things] are said, a program’s days could be numbered. Those are not good signs for a program to go all the way through its planned production phase.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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