Revolutionary. Boondoggle. Unmatched. Waste. These descriptions have all accompanied the F-35 joint strike fighter whenever it makes it into the media, reflecting the author’s particular angle.
While there’s been some incisive criticism on the procurement process and potential for corruption, no one has commented on the main problem: America’s empire emerged from the Cold War as a hyperpower, and yet, the system did not adjust to the reality on the ground in terms of assembling the best forces for unchallenged hegemony.
With the end of the Cold War, the “peace dividend” was an American concept that the U.S. government could divest from massive arms budgets and bases at home and around the globe. A further revelation that did not sink in for American policy makers was the massive liquidation of Soviet equipment and turmoil of the ’90s that made Russian investment in arms miniscule. China was not yet a competent competitor and still is not, which is revealed in its foreign policy moves and new equipment.
The F-35 program was designed for a nation facing a competent, nearly-equal rival for massive air engagements.
This failure to come to terms with reality is not a new thing, but the signs were there for those who could see them. America had not faced a proper air-to-air test of its combat skills since the Korean War. The Johnson and Nixon administrations did not see the power of owning the skies in any conflict, but the Nixon Doctrine, vaguely laid out in 1969, did point to the future we now inhabit. While there was no air-to-air combat in the ’80s, there was the threat of conflict with the Soviet Union and its capable MiGs. After the fall of Soviet-supported communism, America did not just have air superiority but technically owned the skies as, with no-fly-zone enforcements, no one could use air power without American approval.
The F-35 first sprang from the minds of the military in the first Bush administration as a needed replacement for current fighter jets in use. This new fighter was to be a fifth generation system to replace the reliable F-16s and F-18s. It was to incorporate stealth, onboard computer systems, as well as sensors and jamming equipment to make support aircraft superfluous. The vertical takeoff engine capability means the F-35 can be used across armed services, making spare parts orders uniform across divisions.
While some laymen criticize the vertical takeoff capability, it is an important and practical feature for a hyperpower’s imperial wars. As America deploys forces in more remote areas or against more limited opponents in undeveloped areas, vertical takeoff reduces airport infrastructure demands. With fewer infrastructure demands, forward air bases can be set up and made operational quicker, as compared to needs for traditional aircraft.
But there are serious problems with the F-35–or more specifically, with the way the procurement process has functioned around the F-35.
Problems with the procurement process developed in form and execution. The U.S. government broke norms by funding the two firms in competition, so that neither could break the bank to secure this contract. This might not sound like a big difference when one considers how even fifty years ago John Kenneth Galbraith was writing about the need for large government contracts to spur R&D budgets for large corporations, in effect allowing for a revenue stream to provide long-term stability in a corporation’s R&D budget and also fuel the economy.
Galbraith’s approach has merit, but the downside is that USG also allowed the contract to be winner-take-all with no secondary or alternative track program. This is an oddity because within the F-35 program itself, USG handled the engine contract completely differently. Pratt and Whitney, in a joint venture with Rolls Royce, developed the F-35 and won the contract to supply engines to every winner of the joint strike fighter contest, yet had to endure the heat of an alternate track back up from the GE engine. Despite hitting all targets, the government continued to fund the alternate track program for GE for decades. This competition worked to keep Pratt and Whitney honest, yet was never considered for the F-35 program to keep Lockheed Martin on its toes.
As an aside, this points again to lobbying and the power of corruption. GE saw alternate engine track funding due to friendly congressmen while there was no Scoop Jackson in the Senate anymore to fight for Boeing’s alternate plane. GE’s engine program, both military and civilian, relies on this as their green eco-friendly engine was what is now known as a paper engine. Engineers drew up designs, but produced no actual engine. GE used its PR arm, NBC Media, to promote its green engine capabilities and a prime spot in the Obama administration to sell its green eco engines. GE won contracts without producing an engine until Pratt and Whitney produced a working green engine that saved 15% jet fuel in tests. Pratt and Whitney started winning contracts as GE failed to deliver a working engine.
Centralization, consolidation, and growth in mega-corps don’t solely have an effect on the private sector, but also have detrimental effects on projects like the F-35. The size of the order, scope of the mission, and sunk costs, not just in dollars but egos, prevented the system from being nimble enough to meet the actual needs of the next 20 years. By the time the contract was awarded in 2001, it was obvious there was no peer to even the F-22 and none for the foreseeable future.
Media pundits who feign fear at new Chinese jets on test flights today are dazzled by the sleek designs resembling American aircraft but fail to notice the same engines and technological capabilities can be found in older American aircraft. Our large geopolitical rivals are fully aware of our air dominance. The Chinese (and Russians) in effect concede America’s air superiority by investing in subsonic and hypersonic missile technology.
America’s global war on terrorism also revealed that U.S. armed forces were not going up against fully staffed and competent air forces. The air needs of 21st century engagements revolve around close ground air support, as well as the capability to go on high altitude mass bombing runs. In these smaller wars versus irregular forces, bombers do not need escorts, and U.S. troops may call in for air support if needed.
These needs were easily met by the A-10 and the B-52. The F-35 is considered a replacement for the A-10, yet at an incredibly high cost not just per plane, but per hour of operation. It is so expensive that America is auditioning replacements to avoid using the F-35. The B-52 has been used far more than all the stealth bombers rolled out since the ’90s not just because of air superiority, but unchallenged fights.
The F-35 will be delivered for the next twenty years, locking America into expensive, sophisticated planes and preventing quick adjustment to new technology.
Why create the biggest plane program when the same buyer is telling Pratt and Whitney to design engines for fighter jets with no human in the plane, allowing for faster planes performing fantastic moves with no human limitations? Why roll out all of this tech when the advances of the last 20 years in technology could be repeated, making the F-35 obsolete, compared to what Lockheed or Boeing can dream up already? Disregarding the technology, what about procuring equipment for the actual conflicts USG engages in regularly?
But of course, the USG procurement leviathan may not allow for consideration of designing for actual conflicts, even if it were capable.
Detractors of the F-35 point to costs, which might have been mitigated via an alternate track competitor, and other leaked bits like the cockpit ejection leading to hypothetical deaths. First, the pilots would have to be under 136 pounds to suffer a broken neck. Second, the point for ejecting has a flash of light, not just a flash, but an angels-from-heaven flood of light, and the test pilot in the module ejected before that flood. Proponents of the F-35 say it will prove its worth in the air immediately.
The problem with this statement is that the F-35 may never engage in the type of battle in which it was designed to perform: World War III against a large opponent.
Therein lies the problem, namely that the procurement process is too long and dreamed up a generation ago when the challenges were completely different from the generation that followed it. One could argue that this last generation has America’s entire national secuirty community focused on Russia, instead of the crumbling narco-state south of the Rio Grande and America’s increasingly dangerous southwest. The problem is not principally about spending, as expanding the F-22 would have sucked up dollars, and the Pentagon would have found other programs on which to rain money.
The bureaucracy, the lobbying arm, the corporate arm, and ultimately, the jobs engine piece of the military-industrial complex have grown so large that they prevent USG from competently and quickly adjusting to the needs of today, while also planning for tomorrow. Something must change.