The F-35 fighter jet has reached a pivotal moment.
Proponents of the troubled $1.7 trillion program are making a renewed push to persuade the Biden administration to buy even more of the aircraft. Still, skeptical lawmakers and defense industry watchdogs say the F-35 has fallen far short of lofty expectations and that it’s long past time to pull the plug.
Inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, a long-running debate over the F-35 — billed as the most technologically advanced, do-it-all plane in modern history — has taken on renewed significance as the U.S. military races to keep pace with global rival China. Virtually every major defense initiative is now examined through that lens.
Budget overruns, production delays and technical problems have fueled speculation that the massive injection of tax dollars needed to build an F-35 Lightning II — not to mention the long-term maintenance and sustainment costs to keep one flying — would be better spent elsewhere.
Supporters inside and outside the Defense Department, however, vehemently argue that the plane is vital to America’s long-term national security interests and would prove invaluable in 21st-century combat. A bipartisan group of nearly 90 lawmakers last week sent a letter to President Biden urging him to reverse course and buy at least 100 F-35s from contractor Lockheed Martin in 2023 and beyond.
In its fiscal 2022 budget request, the administration said it wants to buy 85 F-35s at a cost of about $12 billion.
“Mr. President, the F-35 is both affordable and more capable than any other aircraft proposed in the budget; it is a technological marvel that represents the best of American manufacturing,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “Now is the time to make the investments in America and uphold our commitments to our allies to buy a minimum of 100 F-35s for our U.S. services per year, invest in the advanced capabilities to stay ahead of the threats, and fund the sustainment profile necessary to support these aircraft for decades to come.”
The letter effectively laid out F-35 battle lines as Congress crafts next year’s spending plan. Decisions on F-35 funding will offer a clear picture of whether the House and Senate stick by the program or begin to shift defense funding elsewhere in the years to come.
Some specialists argue that the fact the letter was written at all proves that momentum has turned squarely against the F-35 and that even its most ardent supporters realize that the Pentagon will buy fewer of the planes.
“If the F-35 was working properly as a program, this kind of letter would not need to be written,” 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 is one of its most vocal critics.
He argued that by focusing heavily on the domestic economic benefits F-35 manufacturing provides, the lawmakers are essentially acknowledging that the program can no longer stand solely on its merits.
“That’s usually a warning sign that the program is on its way out,” Mr. Grazier said.
Indeed, key lawmakers such as Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, have publicly blasted the program and argued that the U.S. should roll it back.
It appears unlikely that either the House or Senate will move to significantly increase the number of F-35 purchases laid out in the president’s budget plan.
Projections for the F-35 are bleak. A July report by the Government Accountability Office found that “the services face a substantial and growing gap between estimated sustainment costs and affordability constraints,” meaning that current cost projections could be unaffordable unless budgets are increased.
‘A critically important program’
Far more than just a fighter jet, the F-35 is cast as an almost otherworldly machine that can handle surveillance and reconnaissance missions, provide close air support, conduct electronic warfare and undertake a host of other tasks that make it a far more advanced plane than anything else in the world.
The program also extends beyond the U.S. The Pentagon and private industry are working with partners around the world. More than 700 F-35s have been delivered so far, according to Lockheed Martin. Thousands of more deliveries were expected, though the expectations are murky given the uncertainty about the program.
Still, defense industry leaders remain confident.
“The F-35 is critical to a strong national defense, and it is the cornerstone of the U.S. fighter fleet,” Lockheed spokesperson William B. Ashworth told The Washington Times. “We are encouraged to see strong bipartisan support of the president’s budget proposal and the capabilities of the F-35. We continue to lower F-35 production costs, which are now at or below the cost of less-capable fourth-generation aircraft, while also making it the most affordable aircraft in the U.S. inventory from a cost per effect standpoint.”
He said the company has significantly reduced sustainment costs in recent years, though critics say those reductions haven’t been enough.
Pentagon officials also touted reductions in future costs and stressed that efforts will continue to drive down the price.
“This is a critically important program to the department, and the department remains committed to the F-35 going forward, as do so many of our allies and partners,” Pentagon spokesperson Jessica Maxwell said. “The F-35 remains the premier multimission strike fighter of choice for three U.S. services, seven international partners and a growing list of foreign military sales customers. The F-35 routinely demonstrates its unmatched capabilities at the hands of our joint and international war fighters, performing combat operations from land and from the sea.”
The $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 not clear how much has been spent to date.
There’s also strong support for the aircraft at the top levels of the Pentagon. At his Senate confirmation hearing in May, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III argued that the key to getting costs down is to buy more aircraft, thereby reducing the maintenance price tag per plane.
“The F-35 is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world and will be so for quite some time. It’s a complex, expensive weapon, unfortunately, but it is a dominant weapon when it goes up against earlier-generation aircraft,” he said.
“The key to keeping the cost down in an air fleet is getting the numbers up,” he said. “There’s a very strong correlation between the size of the fleet and the cost to sustain the fleet. If there were one thing that I would think would drive cost down overall, it’s continue to buy.”