F-35: The Flying Money Furnace

The past two weeks have been an interesting one if you’re either a military aviation enthusiast or an advocate for not spending Olympic swimming pools worth of liquified money on imperialist military adventures – or in my case: both. And it all revolves around one particular weapons system that has deservedly been a lightning rod for attention when it comes to waste, corruption, incompetence, and all manner of other sins in the Military Industrial Complex (MIC): The F-35.

What is the F-35, for those of you who are not already familiar? The F-35 Lightning II was the winner of the military’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program in the early 2000s, designed and intended to replace a whole host of combat aircraft across the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. An advanced, 5th generation multi-role fighter aircraft, the F-35’s advanced avionics, stealthy profile, and a number of other features claimed by its proponents were supposed to make it the backbone of U.S. military aviation for most of the 21st century – destined to be make up the majority of the military’s fleet of fixed-wing combat aircraft. It was to be capable of doing anything and everything that the military would need and doing it better than anything else.

So, what have the results been in practice, after twenty-something years of development?

If someone were trying to be diplomatic about it, they’d probably say “less than satisfactory.”

How would I put it though? As someone who has followed the development and (attempted) fielding of the F-35 since I was a kid, I think the results of the F-35 program are emblematic of everything currently wrong with the United States – both as a whole, and more specifically in the military and the broader national security establishment. What the MIC has produced is an aircraft that is the personification of the United States: a declining empire stumbling through late-stage capitalism gripped by crisis after crisis. How else can you describe things when the world’s richest and most powerful (supposedly) country has been running the most expensive weapons development program in human history for twenty plus years and yet it can’t even produce a working plane?

Trouble in “Paradise” (AKA Lockheed Martin Corporation of Bethesda, MD)

The inciting incident that started the current discussion and debate about the F-35 came on February 17th in the form of an article from the defense news website Breaking Defense (several other publications picked up the story in the following days). In the article, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles “CQ” Brown was quoted by Breaking Defense saying that the Air Force was launching a new study with CAPE on the future composition of the service’s fleet of tactical aircraft.

For those of you who don’t have a cipher handy for the Pentagon’s alphabet soup, CAPE is Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation – essentially an independent think tank within the Office of the Secretary of Defense whose job is to look at procurement and acquisitions, ask questions about cost effectiveness, and if necessary to develop alternatives to service plans for new weapons systems and force structure (something that in my opinion they should be doing far more often and far more robustly, but I digress). When you have your grubby little fingers in a big juicy defense contract, and CAPE starts asking questions, you should start getting worried.

And in this case, its anyone who is involved with the F-35 who should be worried. This is based on several key statements Breaking Defense quoted Brown on from a conversation he had with the Defense Writers Group on the 17th. In particular, Brown stated (on the topic of the study):

“This will help inform the decisions that I think I need to make internal to the Air Force, and what I would recommend that force mix might be,” Brown told the Defense Writers Group late this afternoon. “Now, I will also tell you I don’t think that everybody’s going to exactly agree with what I say. But I want to actually have a starting point as a point of departure, a point of dialogue.”

Brown didn’t stop there:

The study will include a “clean sheet design” for a new “four-and-a-half-gen or fifth-gen-minus” fighter to replace the F-16, Brown elaborated. Rather than simply buy new F-16s, he said, “I want to be able to build something new and different, that’s not the F 16 — that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and uses some of our digital approach.”

That’s the paragraph in particular that says it all about the F-35, without actually saying the name of the F-35 – in fact, the original article itself only mentions the F-35 once, in the context that the General still believes that the service will need some fifth-generation fighters like it. But despite the fact that both Brown and the article take pains not to make this discussion about the F-35, don’t be mistaken; this is all about that particular grift of an aircraft. This was driven home further on February 25th, when the Air Force informed Breaking Defense that not only is their future tactical aircraft fleet under review, but so are those of the Navy and Marine Corps – who are also receiving F-35s to replace the vast majority of their fighter fleets. A memo obtained by Breaking Defense also noted that Undersecretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks had specifically ordered CAPE to review the F-35 – in addition to several other major acquisitions efforts.

Now, I’m not the first one to write about this (Forbes already published a piece by David Axe that basically came to the same conclusions as I have, as has Charles Pierce over at Esquire). But seeing as I probably have a slightly different take on all this even if I overall agree with them, I’m going to go ahead and take a stab my own, rambling analysis.

The most important thing to note here is that as the F-35 was intended to whole-sale replace the F-16 – a line that the DoD has stuck to until now – and suddenly the professional head of the Air Force is talking about something else replacing the majority of those aircraft, it suggests that the military’s confidence in the F-35 overcoming its prolonged “teething issues” has finally begun to wane to levels that probably has Lockheed Martin – the manufacturer  of the F-35 and the F-16 that it is replacing – starting to sweat. It has already been waging a battle – both directly and through various proxies – to prevent the Air Force from buying 144 new F-15EX multirole fighters to replace aging 70s and 80s variants of that fighter (which was supposed to have been replaced by the now curtailed F-22), seeing it as a threat to their current monopoly on building new fighter aircraft for the military.

These new statements by Brown have clearly already dumped some gasoline on the fire beneath Lockheed Martin’s feet. Since the story broke, Brown has had to walk back his statements slightly, asserting that the F-35 is still the Air Force’s “cornerstone fighter” and is not a “failure.” The fact that he came under any sort of pressure to do so, however, should tell you that the level of confidence those involved in that program have is currently very low and likely fragile (as should the fact Lockheed Martin is scrambling for good news on the F-35 in other areas).

Failures of the Flying Money Furnace

“So, what’s the deal with the F-35?”  You ask in your best Jerry Seinfeld impersonation, canned sitcom laughter echoing all around you.

In a nutshell: the “deal” is the fact that after over twenty years of development and over a trillion dollars spent – making it the most expensive weapons development program in human history – the F-35 is still suffering from numerous technical issues and shortcomings – with new ones being discovered consistently. Yes, despite twenty years and $1.727 trillion dollars, the F-35 has still not actually entered full-rate production – something it was scheduled to do in 2020, and has since been delayed indefinitely, with the plane remaining in low-rate initial production instead. This has left the F-35 – despite the fact that 563 of the aircraft have already been produced as of September 2020 – remaining little more than a “massively expensive prototype”, as the Project on Government Oversight (POGO)’s research puts it. This is reinforced by the fact that despite setting modest mission-capable rates for the aircraft, the F-35 failed to reach that rate by the prescribed deadline of September 2020 (the Marine Corp’s F-35B actually saw its mission capable rate drop. Ouch. Nice job, leathernecks).

POGO’s research on the F-35 program shows that the primary reason for the delays have been the persistent technical flaws and issues that have plagued the F-35 throughout its development – with the most serious having been discovered only after the initial production aircraft have arrived at units for operational testing. According to the latest annual report on the F-35 from DoD’s Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) published in October 2020, the F-35 has 871 unresolved deficiencies – a decline of only 2 from 2019. Of these deficiencies, ten are classified as Category 1, the most serious classification of flaw, meaning that they could cause severe illness, injury, or death – as well as major damage to or the loss of the weapons system in question, with a negative impact on combat readiness.

The report (not surprisingly) does not go into any real detail on the nature of the F-35’s flaws, but it does point to significant stability issues with the aircraft’s software, with the solving of one bug by developers creating more bugs in the process at a rate faster than they can keep up with. This is not the only way in which software is a liability for the F-35. Its heavy dependence upon computerized systems and networks means it is essentially a flying vector for cyber-attacks – as is its ground-based support system (which we’ll get to in a moment, along with its other flaws). If you think the problems are only with software though, don’t speak too soon: POGO points out that the F-35 has suffered from numerous mechanical breakdowns over the years too – the key driver behind that abysmal mission-capable rate that we touched upon earlier.

Even as the rate of breakdowns has declined, the F-35 suffers from being a notoriously hard plane to repair, with even experienced ground-crews reportedly taking twice as long as should be necessary to repair the aircraft when its broken. This then translates into incredibly high costs as well. When the F-35 can fly, it apparently costs $44,000 per hour to keep it in the air – over twice as much compared to that A-10s and F-16s that it is supposed to replace in the Air Force. When POGO extrapolated that out over the expected 8,000 flying hour lifespan of each F-35, it came out to $352 million to operate one jet, effectively making it nothing more than a flying money furnace (and conveniently, a great title for this essay).

Then there are the problems with the plane that aren’t with the plane itself but are with the entire infrastructure needed to support it. Despite having 14 years in change to prepare, contractors have been unable to complete the simulators and ranges necessary for further testing and training – part of the reason why the aircraft has remained in low-rate production. The F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) has also been notorious for its failings – which included forcing maintainers to work excessive hours just to create workarounds to avoid the system creating false deficiencies and ordering incorrect parts. The Pentagon finally admitted in 2020 that the system was beyond salvaging and now plan to spend $550 million over the next five years to build a replacement system for it. Oh, and by the way, that replacement system (which is called “ODIN”; try not to roll your eyes)? DOT&E is already saying that DoD’s expectations and deadlines for the replacement are unrealistic, calling it “high risk” in its F-35 report. Its already reportedly running into some issues out of the gate, cutting corners and creating potential problems later on down the line.

I usually try not to get sucked into “time is a flat circle” despair, but I can certainly see why some people do when I start to do a deep dive on the F-35.

Finally, even when you look past the design deficiencies and flaws that have emerged after the F-35 has entered production and operational testing, there’s the fact that the F-35s superiority is dependent upon a quality that the United States can no long take for granted: stealth. When the F-35 began development, the United States was still the only country in the world with stealth aircraft, which it had used to bomb Iraq with impunity during the 1991 Gulf War. The F-35 was to utilize the stealth developments of past aircraft like the F-22 fighter, B-2 bomber, and F-117 strike aircraft to allow it to get the drop on any and all adversaries.

The problem there is, in the twenty years it has taken to develop the F-35 and put it into production, stealth isn’t what it used to be. Russia and China – and even U.S. ally Germany – have claimed to have developed new and advanced radar systems that may be able to detect stealth aircraft like the F-35 and F-22. Even certain kinds of existing radars may also have an ability to detect stealth aircraft as well by utilizing technology and techniques from as far back as the 1950s. These systems have all obviously generated some scrutiny, and I’d remiss if I didn’t say we should take any claims from Russia and China that they can defeat the stealth capabilities of U.S. aircraft with a grain of salt. But even if these radars are only partly effective, those marginal abilities be used as part of a suite of systems that could counter stealth aircraft. Its easy to forget Serbia was able to down an F-117 stealth fighter during Operation Allied Force in 1999 – they actually hit another too, in a less well-known story – though that one didn’t crash).

Now all this doesn’t mean stealth is completely useless or obsolete.  But assuming stealth will always be assured is a risky move to make, especially when you’ve gambled big on it being the chief advantage of your primary airframe – like with a certain 5th-gen fighter we’ve been discussing. So, what is the F-35 like when you take away that advantage?

Well, for one, the F-35 doesn’t carry a lot of munitions – at least if you want to maintain that stealth profile to begin with. If you do want to maintain stealth, you need to carry all your ordinance internally. This not only cuts down the amount of ordinance you can carry but limits you to only one kind of air-to-air missile – the AIM-120 AMRAM and one kind of bomb – the JDAM  (as of 2019 Lockheed Martin appears to have found a way to increase the number of missiles the F-35 can hold from four to six, probably feeling the heat from competitors or curtailed construction). It’s also slower than the aircraft its most likely to go up against, like the Russian MiG-29 and Su-27 families of aircraft – even when it’s not restricted from supersonic flight to avoid damaging itself in the process. Hell, it’s even slower of the F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s that its slated to either replace or supplant in U.S. service.

On top of those points, the F-35 is also far less maneuverable than 4th generation fighters, easily outfought by aircraft from both the United States and abroad. Some proponents of the F-35 have argued that this doesn’t matter, as the age of the “dogfight” is dead. The problem with their comeback is, their argument – by their own admission in some cases – hinges upon the F-35s stealth capability, assuming that most of its kills would be undetected and beyond the sight of its enemy. This brings us back to our original question “well, ok, but what if you don’t have stealth?” This presumption that the F-35’s stealth advantage will go unchallenged now or in the future, further lends credence to the fact it is a double-edged sword: its main advantage, but also potentially its downfall in combat.

All these factors (and more that I could go deeper into if this wasn’t already shaping up to be the longest essay that I’ve written so far) add up to tell you one thing: when you take away the stealth advantages, the F-35 is pretty much just a middling fighter jet with a lot of expensive computers in it. Those expensive computers may offer some key advantages, but don’t offer enough on their own to justify the price tag. With its overdependence on stealth – an advantage the United States will not have a monopoly on forever – the F-35 is the perfect fighter for an imperial power that has convinced itself it has a God-given right to military superiority.

Why Should We Care?

I could go on about the technical and conceptual failures of the F-35 for hours. Literally. I could. I have before (ask my poor friends who have been subjected to shit like this in our DMs and hours-long voice calls). I had to throttle myself back on how much I bombarded you all with from the DOT&E report and POGO’s analysis of it and other F-35 data, out of the fear I may scare even more of you off (if you’re still reading this essay this far in, bravo to you). If you want to really geek out about this like I do, I suggest you go back and read both of those documents (I’ll link them both here in case you missed them before) to soak up all the other failings of the DoD and Lockheed Martin that I wasn’t able to describe here lest this turn into a full-on book that even less people will read than already are.

But again, I digress. I’ve thrown a lot of boring NatSec nerd shit at you about aircraft and procurement and testing and etc. So, what you may be wondering is “Savage, why should we care about this?”

I feel like some of the answer to that is already implicit in everything that’s occurred, but it’s still a fair question and I’ll break down my own personal feelings – which is that resources wasted on this program and the attempts to casually shrug it off after spending insane amounts of money on it that could have been put to countless other better uses, enrages me to my core both as a national security professional and as a leftist. I’m going to try and break down why it gets to me in both those facets, separate from one another – though there is arguably some crossover.

As a leftist, it should be pretty obvious why this gets to me – or anyone really. We’ve entering year two of life under lockdown due to COVID-19, where the amount of financial support from the government has been absolutely pitiful in scale, with our leaders dithering over providing people with what are essentially band-aids to put on financial sucking chest wounds (by the way, on that topic: where’s my fucking $2000 Joe? Not $1400, $2000), let alone a minimum wage increase. Additionally, government response to the myriad of other natural disasters over the past year has also been laughable, the most recent example being Texas’ response to a blizzard that resulted in multiple deaths – that response consisting more of blaming the Green New Deal (which is still just a proposal and isn’t even a law yet) while casually ignoring their own lack of investment in protecting their infrastructure and their insistence on having their power grid be isolated from others in order to avoid Federal oversight.

The message we get from all of this, is that the government can’t afford to spend money on health care, unemployment, raising the minimum wage, natural disaster recovery, improving infrastructure and utilities, or any of those things that maybe a modern country should have in the 21st century. But what it can do, is spend north of a trillion dollars over twenty years or so on a shitty fighter jet that doesn’t even fucking work. They can’t spend the money to – at bare minimum – prevent people from dying in their own homes during a severe weather event, but they can continue to throw money at the failed jet in a desperate attempt to make it work. Then, as it to kick additional dirt in our face, they can casually suggest that maybe the $1 trillion jet was a bad idea and we should try building something else, without a hint of remorse or guilt, as they wring their hands over a single $1400 check that they somehow expect will be enough for people suffering throughout this trash fire of a year to live on until the pandemic is over (whenever the hell that may be).

If you’re not a leftist already, I don’t see how this would do some serious leg work in pushing you further there. The money spent on the F-35 compared to just about anything else we need in this country truly reinforces a feeling that at best, our leaders our simply oblivious to the plight of the most vulnerable and the repercussions of the ongoing crises, and at worse they are fully aware and just don’t give a shit about people’s suffering as long as they remain in power and they – and their rich friends – get what they want to get out of it. Even before I became a leftist, I thought the F-35 was a wasteful boondoggle that made me sigh and shake my head. Now it makes me spew out several thousand angry words about it in text form because I have to do something in order to keep the rage from completely consuming me.

So, that’s my rant about the F-35 as a leftist. Pretty standard. But what about as a national security professional? From that angle, the F-35 angers me because it just points to the utter breakdown of the defense establishment since the end of the Cold War – and in particular since the start of the War on Terror after 9/11. If any of you who have read some of my other pieces by now, you know that despite my politics, I am under no illusions that we’d still very much need a military under a leftist political system. War, as I have said and will continue to say, is not going anywhere. Despite what tankies on twitter may try to tell you, countries like China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia are not your friends and do not have good intentions. There are plenty of other legitimately bad actors out there too who have ill-intent. We shouldn’t seek out fights, but we should be prepared to defend ourselves and others from aggression. Likewise, while I don’t think we should be spending the astronomical amounts of money we currently pay into defense, I do think that we’ll need to spend some money on it and will need new capabilities in the future.

But what the F-35 debacle shows me is, is that the MIC has gone fully rampant under the current system. The fact that the F-35 hasn’t been able to work out its problems, wasting two decades and nearly $2 trillion in money that could have gone to any number of more worthy causes or more practical weapons systems, does not bode well. Especially when you remember that the F-35 is only the latest in a long line of failed, major procurement programs to replace Cold War-era hardware – such as the Crusader artillery system, the Comanche scout helicopter, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, Future Combat Systems, and many, many, many more (which maybe I’ll do a separate piece on some day; or two, or three). The defense establishment’s ability to actually produce a working, effective product, for a price that isn’t outrageous, has dropped off drastically since the end of the Cold War.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not wearing rose colored glasses. Procurement and acquisitions in the military has always been flawed and corrupt. But during the Cold War  we were still at least able to produce some working products that fulfilled their purpose to a satisfactory end. The Army managed to get its “Big Five” systems into production in the 1980s – the M1 Abrams tank, M2 Bradley IFV, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter, and the Patriot missile system – and now those aging systems and others like them continue to form the backbone of the military, as countless attempts to replace them have failed – not before wasting billions of dollars of public money that could be paying for people to stay home right now, of course.

Why are things like this? It’s not a simple answer, and beyond answering concisely in one article. A lot of reasons combined, is as simple as I can put it. Incompetence and mismanagement within the DoD itself to start. Then add in a healthy mix of greed, corruption, and feelings of impunity on the part of both the defense contractors and their allies within DoD. This is all mostly baseless speculation on my part, admittedly – but it doesn’t take a genius to look at how these programs work and know there’s shady shit going on behind the scenes. Really, this is all shocking to me, as I have constantly been told that capitalism breeds innovation, so I can’t believe that the F-35 has turned out the way it has in the hyper capitalist state of affairs that we’ve grown to live in today (in case you can’t tell, rest assured, that is sarcasm).

Turbulence Ahead

Is this the end of the F-35? Probably not. Enough of them have been built at this point that we’ll be cursed with them for a good long while. But even if DoD curtails or cancels the rest of its production, the issues that produced it in the first place remain, and we may already be getting a preview of what our next big fuck-up might be as we circle back to the statements of good ol’ General Charlie Brown that kicked off this extended rant-fest.

If you remember from way towards the start of this article, General Brown said he might want a “clean sheet” replacement to the F-16. That line made my eyes just about roll back into my head and let out an existential scream, because it shows that the DoD has either learned nothing or learned just enough to realize they made a huge mistake but not enough to not repeat it. All I know is, if I were General Brown, I wouldn’t be so eager to launch into a new multi-year, multi-billion clean-sheet aircraft procurement program if I’d just candidly admitted that the one I was mired in was a complete and total shitshow that wasn’t getting the job done. If you didn’t want to just buy a new F-16 – and hey, critical support to not buying anything from Lockheed Martin – you could find another jet that’s probably just as good if not better. Why does it have to be clean sheet? Why is good ol’ Charlie Brown once again ready for Lucy to pull the football away again right as he’s about to kick it?

Here’s where I rapidly jump back between one of the two wolves inside me – the Nat Sec analyst – the other one – the leftist: the obvious answer seems to be that you need to keep the defense companies fat and happy. Sure, you could just buy some existing, upgraded fighter aircraft – like the Air Force has already done with the F-15EX. But if the F-35 debacle has proven one thing, its that having a long, drawn out, big ticket weapons development project like the F-35 gives you a lot more opportunities to drain the taxpayer for every cent even if it turns out to be a failure – maybe even especially if it turns out to be a failure. God forbid any of that money to building a road or a working power grid.

Maybe I’m giving the defense companies too much credit when it comes to supervillain plots, but it’s hard not to be cynical and jaded at this point. Especially when we could have done things so much differently.

The United States was the only great power in the world to decide it was going all in on 5th generation stealth fighters as the backbone of its military air forces at the dawn of the 21st century. Practically every other major military power in the world – including Russia, China, and a lot of U.S. allies and partners – decided it would be a lot safer bet to wait and see when it came to 5th generation fighters, and they were right. Many of them decided to simply upgrade their 4th generation fighters or build advanced new ones, waiting for us to work out all the kinks and make all the missteps – much like me watching my brother go through multiple early generation iPods as a kid before I finally bought a later model one that still works to this day. Even the countries that participated in the global effort to build the F-35 or buy it probably got a better deal out of it than if they’d tried to build their own. After all, the United States was the one expelling the lion’s share of the blood, tears, sweat, and treasure in the project. Even if those participating were getting a subpar fighter, they at least were getting it having paid far less – and were learning from U.S. mistakes. Now, as the United States buys the F-15EX and consider an alternative to replace the F-16, it arrives twenty-something years late at the obvious conclusion that a bunch of its friends and most likely adversaries have long already figured out.

At any rate, who knows what this CAPE report will end up leading to. Maybe it’ll go nowhere, ending up as a big nothing sandwich. Whatever happens, it doesn’t change the fact that the F-35 is a fundamentally flawed and wasteful project that lays the worst qualities of the MIC and of our country as a whole. It is indicative of behavior that is not only harmful to this country’s national security, but more importantly, is harmful to its people and their needs. The F-35 is indicative of America’s dying imperial power. The system that leads to corporate grifts like the F-35 program need to be ended and replaced. Otherwise, much like a faulty F-35, this country will quite simply crash and burn in a horrific and disastrous fashion.

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