TIME — Marine Major Aric “Walleye” Liberman was uncharacteristically modest for a Navy SEAL turned fighter pilot. He had just landed an F-35–one of the 2,457 jets the Pentagon plans to buy for $400 billion, making it the costliest weapons program in human history–at its initial operational base late last year. Amid celebratory hoopla, he declined photographers’ requests to give a thumbs-up for the cameras that sunny day in Yuma, Ariz. “No, no, no,” he demurred with a smile.
Liberman’s reticence was understandable. For while the Marines hailed his arrival as a sign that their initial F-35 squadron is now operational, there’s one sticking point. “It’s an operational squadron,” a Marine spokesman said. “The aircraft is not operational.”
The F-35, designed as the U.S. military’s lethal hunter for 21st century skies, has become the hunted, a poster child for Pentagon profligacy in a new era of tightening budgets. Instead of the stars and stripes of the U.S. Air Force emblazoned on its fuselage, it might as well have a bull’s-eye. Its pilots’ helmets are plagued with problems, it hasn’t yet dropped or fired weapons, and the software it requires to go to war remains on the drawing board.
That’s why when Liberman landed his F-35 before an appreciative crowd, including home-state Senator John McCain, he didn’t demonstrate its most amazing capability: landing like a helicopter using its precision-cast titanium thrust-vectoring nozzle. That trick remains reserved for test pilots, not operational plane drivers like him.
The price tag, meanwhile, has nearly doubled since 2001, to $396 billion. Production delays have forced the Air Force and Navy to spend at least $5 billion to extend the lives of existing planes. The Marine Corps–the cheapest service, save for its love of costly jump jets (which take off and land almost vertically) for its pet aircraft carriers–have spent $180 million on 74 used British AV-8 jets for spare parts to keep their Reagan-era Harriers flying until their version of the F-35 truly comes online. Allied governments are increasingly weighing alternatives to the F-35.
But the accounting is about to get even worse as concern over spending on the F-35 threatens other defense programs. On March 1, if lawmakers cannot reach a new budget deal, the Pentagon faces more than $500 billion in spending cuts in the form of sequestration, which translates into a 10% cut in projected budgets over the coming decade. Two years ago, the White House predicted that those cuts would be so onerous to defense-hawk Republicans that they would never happen. But the GOP is now split, with a growing number of members who are more concerned about the deficit than defense.
“We are spending maybe 45% of the world’s budget on defense. If we drop to 42% or 43%, would we be suddenly in danger of some kind of invasion?” asked Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican and part of a new breed of deficit hawks who talk of spending as a bigger threat than war. “We’re bankrupting our country, and it’s going to put us in danger.”
House Republican leaders have started to speak of the military cuts as inevitable. President Obama has warned that without a new plan from Congress, there will be “tough decisions in the weeks ahead,” like the recent announcement that an aircraft-carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf will be delayed to save money.
The sad irony is that cutting the F-35 at this point won’t save much money in the near term, because the Pentagon recently pushed nearly $5 billion in F-35 contracts out the door. Yet sequester-mandated cuts will push both the purchase of additional planes and their required testing into the future with an inevitable result: the cost of each plane will rise even higher. Unfortunately, that won’t be anything new for the F-35 Lightning II.
How Did We Get Here?
The single-engine, single-seat f-35 is a real-life example of the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Think of it as a flying Swiss Army knife, able to engage in dogfights, drop bombs and spy. Tweaking the plane’s hardware makes the F-35A stealthy enough for the Air Force, the F-35B’s vertical-landing capability lets it operate from the Marines’ amphibious ships, and the Navy F-35C’s design is beefy enough to endure punishing carrier operations.
“We’ve put all our eggs in the F-35 basket,” said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. Given that, one might think the military would have approached the aircraft’s development conservatively. In fact, the Pentagon did just the opposite. It opted to build three versions of a single plane averaging $160 million each (challenge No. 1), agreed that the planes should be able to perform multiple missions (challenge No. 2), then started rolling them off the assembly line while the blueprints were still in flux–more than a decade before critical developmental testing was finished (challenge No. 3). The military has already spent $373 million to fix planes already bought; the ultimate repair bill for imperfect planes has been estimated at close to $8 billion.
Back in 2002, Edward Aldridge, then the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said the F-35 was “setting new standards for technological advances” and “rewriting the books on acquisition and business practices.” His successor voiced a different opinion last year. “This will make a headline if I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway,” Frank Kendall said. “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done.”
The Pentagon and its allies say the need for the F-35 was so dire that the plane had to be built as it was being designed. (More than a decade into its development, blueprints are changing about 10 times a day, seven days a week.) “The technological edge of the American tactical air fleet is only about five years, and both Russia and China are fielding fifth-generation fighters of their own,” argues Tom Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “Preserving the cumulative quantity-quality advantage requires that the United States field a full fleet of fifth-generation fighters now.”
Others suggest that no nation is close to fielding weapons in sufficient quality and quantity to challenge U.S. air dominance anytime soon and that the rush to develop the F-35 was more internal than external. “There’s always this sexual drive for a new airplane on the part of each service,” says Tom Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 to 2005. “Persistent, urgent and natural.”
The resulting bastard child was a compromise, not optimum for any one service but good enough for all three. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy liked its stubby design. The F-35C’s squat fuselage puts its tailhook close to its landing gear (7 ft., compared with 18 on the F-18 it is replacing), making it tough to grab the arresting cable on an aircraft carrier. Its short range means aircraft carriers ferrying it into battle will have to sail close to enemy shores if the F-35C is to play a role. It can fly without lumbering aerial tankers only by adding external fuel tanks, which erases the stealthiness that is its prime war-fighting asset.
Cramming the three services into the program reduced management flexibility and put the taxpayer in a fiscal headlock. Each service had the leverage generated by threatening to back out of the program, which forced cost into the backseat, behind performance. “The Air Force potentially could have adopted the Navy variant, getting significantly more range and structural durability,” says John Young Jr., a top Navy and Pentagon civilian official from 2001 to 2009. “But the Air Force leadership refused to consider such options.”
Yet if the Navy, and Young, were upset with the Air Force, the Air Force was upset with the Marines. “This is a jobs program for Marine aviation,” says retired general Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994. “The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong.” He scoffs at the Marine demand for a plane that can land vertically, saying, “The idea of landing on a beach and supporting your troops close up from some improvised airfield, à la Guadalcanal, is not going to happen.”
Focused on waging two post-9/11 wars, the Pentagon let the F-35 program drift as costs ballooned and schedules slipped for a decade. The Marines’ F-35 was supposed to be capable of waging war in April 2010, the Air Force’s in June 2011 and the Navy’s in April 2012. In a break with Pentagon custom, there now is no such “initial operating capability” date for any of them; each is likely to be delayed several years.
Regardless of the plane’s merit, the lawmakers pushing for it are hardly disinterested observers. The then 48 members of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, many of whom sit on key Pentagon-overseeing panels, pocketed twice as much as nonmembers in campaign contributions from the F-35’s top contractors in the 2012 election cycle. Those lawmakers’ constituents, in turn, hold many of the F-35 program’s 133,000 jobs spread across 45 states. (F-35 builder Lockheed Martin says jobs will double once the plane enters full production.)
Complicating matters further, the Pentagon and Lockheed have been at war with each other for years. Air Force Lieut. General Christopher Bogdan, a senior Pentagon F-35 manager, declared last summer that the relationship was “the worst I’ve ever seen–and I’ve been in some bad ones.” But the two sides insist the worst is now behind them. Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson said last month that the aircraft has topped 5,000 flight hours, stepped up its flight-test schedule and is steadily pushing into new corners of its flight envelope. “Our maturing production line, operational-base stand-up and expanded pilot training are all strong indicators of the F-35 program’s positive trajectory,” she said. Deliveries of fresh F-35s more than doubled in 2012, to 30 planes.
Pilots love the F-35. There are few gauges, buttons or knobs in the cockpit. “What you have in front of you is a big touchscreen display–it’s an interface for the iPad generation,” says Marine Colonel Arthur Tomassetti, an F-35 test pilot. “You have an airplane that with very small movements of your left and right hand does what you want it to do. And if you don’t want it to do anything, it stays where you left it.” That makes it easy to fly. “I’m watching the emerald-colored sea up against the white sand,” Tomassetti says of his flights from Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. “I remember lots of flights in other airplanes where I never had time to do anything like that.”
But military technology has been moving away from manned fighters for years. Drones, standoff weapons and GPS-guided bombs have cut the utility of, and need for, such short-leg piloted planes. Their limits become even more pronounced amid the Pentagon’s pivot to the Pacific, where the tyranny of distance makes the F-35’s short combat radius (469 miles for the Marines, 584 for the Air Force, 615 for the Navy) a bigger challenge.
Computers are key to flying the plane. But instead of taking advantage of simplicity, the F-35 is heading in the other direction: its complexity can be gleaned from its 24 million lines of computer code, including 9.5 million on board the plane. That’s more than six times as much as the Navy F-18 has. The F-35 computer code, government auditors say, is “as complicated as anything on earth.”
Computers also were supposed to replace most prototyping and allow all three kinds of F-35s to roll off the Texas assembly line at the same time, just as Avalons, Camrys and Venzas are rolling out of Toyota’s huge Kentucky plant. “Advances in the technology, in our design tools and in our manufacturing processes have significantly changed the manner in which aircraft are designed and built today,” Paul Kaminski, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said in 1997.
But Lockheed is no Toyota. Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, the bible of the aerospace industry and a traditional supporter, published an editorial last fall that declared the program “already a failure” on cost and schedule and said “the jury is still out” on its capabilities. It suggested pitting the F-35 against existing fighters–Air Force F-15s and F-16s and Navy F-18s–for future U.S. fighter purchases.
J. Michael Gilmore, Christie’s successor as the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, reported in January that all three versions will be slower and less maneuverable than projected. Weight-saving efforts have made the plane 25% more vulnerable to fire. Only one of three F-35s flown by the U.S. military, he added, was ready to fly between March and October.
Such problems inevitably lead to delays, which relentlessly drive up the price. “Lockheed Martin and the F-35 program have not shown any kind of sensitivity to costs,” says Richard Aboulafia, who tracks military aviation for the Teal Group, which analyzes the defense business. “That makes for a vulnerable program.”
And dark clouds are gathering. Pentagon and Lockheed officials know they need to sell hundreds of F-35s to a dozen nations to reduce the cost of each U.S. plane. But Canada announced in December that it is considering alternatives to its planned buy of 65 F-35s after an independent analysis pegged their lifetime cost at nearly $46 billion, roughly double an earlier estimate (the estimated U.S. lifetime cost: $1.5 trillion). Australia recently suggested it wants 24 more St. Louis–built Boeing F-18s, almost guaranteeing a reduction in its planned purchase of up to 100 F-35s.
The Right Kind of Plane?
While debate swirls around how to build the F-35 right, there’s a more important question: Is it the right kind of plane for the U.S. military in the 21st century? The F-35 is a so-called fifth-generation fighter, which means it is built from the ground up to elude enemy radar that could be used to track and destroy it. Stealth was all the rage in military circles when the Pentagon conceived the F-35. But that was well before the drone explosion, which makes the idea of flying a human through flak and missiles seem quaint. “The Air Force,” Aboulafia says, “eagerly drank gallons of the fifth-generation purple liquid.”
Improved sensors and computing are eroding stealth’s value every day, says Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations. Eventually, he warns, they will give potential foes “actionable target information” on stealth platforms.
The Air Force feared “additional fourth-generation fighter acquisition as a direct threat to fifth-generation fighter programs,” Air Force Lieut. Colonel Christopher Niemi, a veteran F-22 pilot, wrote in the November-December 2012 issue of the service’s Air & Space Power Journal. Its refusal to reconsider buying new fourth-generation F-15s and F-16s in lieu of some F-35s “threatens to reduce the size of the Air Force’s fielded fighter fleet to dangerously small numbers, particularly in the current fiscal environment.”
A stealthy jet requires sacrifices in range, flying time and weapon-carrying capability–the hat trick of aerial warfare. All those factors have played a role in the fate of the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the nation’s only other fifth-generation warplane. It has been sitting on runways around the globe for seven years, pawing at the tarmac as the nation waged wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Yet the F-22, built to fight wars against enemies that have yet to materialize, has yet to fly a single combat mission.
If sequestration happens March 1, F-35 officials have made it clear they will be forced to slow production and delay flight tests. Both steps will make each plane that is ultimately bought more expensive.
But thanks to $4.8 billion in Pentagon contracts for 31 planes pushed out the door barely 100 hours before the original Jan. 2 sequestration deadline, much of the program will continue on autopilot.
“The F-35 program has built up a good buffer by getting the most recent lot of aircraft awarded in time,” says Todd Harrison, a defense-budget expert at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “That means Lockheed and all the subcontractors have a backlog of work that won’t be affected by sequestration, so they can continue working as planned for the time being.”
Apparently the F-35 may end up being pretty stealthy after all.
By Mark Thompson
Posted on February 14, 2013
Photo: Dan Winters for TIME
TIME | The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built