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

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

At the moment, no one is happy — not the Pentagon, not the contractors, not the test pilots, and not the allies who are rethinking purchase plans.

As design flaws lead to griping and delay, they also breed discontent. In February, an internal report was leaked to POGO, which put it online. The report cites numerous concerns, including visibility fears of test pilots. “The headrest will impede aft visibility and survivability during surface and air engagements,” one pilot said, adding, “Aft visibility will get the pilot gunned every time.”

Early last month, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, took shots at Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney, the two main contractors, implying they were not doing enough to contain costs — adding to the open friction between the Pentagon and the contractors.

Back home at a press conference in Washington, Bogdan looked past design and construction, calling maintenance and operations “the big gorilla” and suggesting that if those costs cannot be controlled they would "potentially be unaffordable.”

One option to reduce costs is to simply build fewer planes. But this solution risks setting off a “death spiral.” Affordability after development hinges on volume. The cost per unit climbs each time a sale is lost, forcing prices up and jeopardizing other sales as well.

Canada is reported to be very close to canceling its order for 65 of the planes, and last year Italy slashed its original order. Canadian officials have danced around the issue, but in February Boeing — which lost out to Lockheed in the original F-35 contract — was pitching Canada on its Super Hornet, an advanced version of the F-18. The cheaper, proven alternative, Boeing argued, promised half the sticker price and half the projected operations costs.

Zero sum

The lure of the Super Hornet raises the question of whether this next generation fighter is actually filling a necessary niche in the Western military arsenal. The answer, argues Chris Harmer at the Institute for the Study of War, is no.

Harmer, who spent 20 years as a naval aviator before joining ISW, argues that stealth technology is overrated and that the plane is being built for combat situations that will rarely if ever arise.

Harmer concedes that the F-35 is a leap forward. “But what kind of a performance increase did we get, and what did that cost us?” he asks.

“The vast majority of what our fixed-wing aircraft have been doing is close air support in what is known as ‘a permissive threat environment,’ ” or a space where there is no integrated air defense system, or IADS.

“You don’t need a Rolls Royce solution to go get the groceries,” Harmer said.

Harmer argues that the military has rarely faced an IADS in recent years, but when it does, it prefers to take them on with “stand-off” weapons, such as cruise missiles, which cripple the air defenses before planes move in

“If we are spending twice as much on F-35s as we are for F-16s, we are going to end up with fewer flight hours available, fewer airplanes available, and a decreased ability to surge in case of a requirement,” he said.

“Budgets are the very definition of zero sum,” Harmer said.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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