Stealthy new fighter jet a clunky budget bunker buster, critics say

Published: Sunday, April 21 2013 6:00 p.m. MDT

In this July 14, 2011 file photo released by U.S. Air Force, a 33rd Fighter Wing aircraft maintainer moves by the U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF), before giving the pilot an order to taxi the aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

U.S. Air Force, Samuel King Jr., File, Associated Press

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The last thing a military awash in red ink needs is an expensive next-generation fighter jet.

But as Washington struggles with budget cuts and Ogden's Hill Air Force Base faces employee furloughs, the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 — the most expensive military armament project in history — struggles to get off the ground.

In February, all F-35s were grounded after one suffered a cracked turbine blade. Then on March 11, a warning light forced an F-35 en route to Nevada to land in Lubbock, Texas. It remained grounded for weeks, with more technical glitches when it tried to leave. As of March 29, it was still stuck there.

The idea behind the F-35 is that the venerable, 40-year-old F-16 and the 30-year-old F-18 workhorses need to be replaced with cutting-edge technology, especially radar-evading stealth.

But critics says the F-35 is trying to do too many things and doing none of them well. A single design is expected, with little adaptation, to reach 1.6 times the speed of sound, be adaptable for vertical takeoff and landing, and hide from radar with stealth technology.

The cost of the F-35 program has risen to $396 billion, even before flying or maintaining the planes, a costly controversy in its own right. To put that in context, the devastating spending cuts under the sequester, which then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned in 2011 would “hollow out” the military, require $500 billion to be cut over nine years.

“In the mid- and late 1990s, the Pentagon was told this plane would be a performance disaster and its costs would be multiples of what they were then estimating,” said Winslow Wheeler at the Project on Government Oversight, one of the program’s fiercest critics. According to Wheeler, concerns came from multiple sources as the project developed, both internally and externally. “But they ignored the warning.”

After years of bailing out banks deemed too big to fail and dodging entitlements too big to touch, critics argue that a budget-busting Pentagon program is taking its own turn on that infamous stage. And in doing so, they fear, the program is diverting vital funds from training, maintenance and other vital military procurement programs.

Budget buster

In 2001, the program was scheduled to take 10 years and produce planes at $69 million per unit, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office. By 2012, development had ballooned to 18 years and the cost to $137 million per plane.

A 2012 Government Accounting Office report compared the F35 program to the other top 20 military procurement programs. “The Joint Strike Fighter program alone is expected to account for 38 percent — or almost $246 billion — of the future procurement funding needed,” the GAO report stated. “This amount is enough to fund the remaining procurement costs of the next 15 largest programs.”

Add in money already spent, and the program now stands at $396 billion — if the projected number of planes are bought. That’s just to build and buy. The cost to maintain and operate them are also high, now estimated at more than $1 trillion over their 50-year lifespans.

That’s a lot of eggs in one troubled basket, critics say.

“What they should do is kill the program,” Wheeler said, extend the life of current fighters and launch a new program with different planes better tailored to particular needs. “They could get far greater numbers for far more effective airplanes for far less money."

“At some point,” Wheeler said, “they will appreciate that this program has to be killed, but that decision is some years out. Between now and then, the plane will twist slowly in the wind as they grimly try to hold on.”


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