The Buzz

Why Trump Blasted the 'Out of Control' F-35 Program

Unfortunately, those who bought into and furthered the belief the F-35 is an underperformer have drowned out the fact the jet has overcome the meddling of bureaucrats and is on the cusp of becoming a dominant tool in our arsenal. With that as a backdrop, it’s neither surprising nor entirely unwelcome that President-elect Trump chose to express his interest in the program in such a public way. While the program today is experiencing success, it has only been since senior leaders such as Gates and, subsequently, Bogdan applied sufficient friction that the F-35 was able to turn the corner. Critics of the president-elect’s technique overlook the fact that it was the pressure to perform, not meddling, that ultimately brought the program back on track. There’s a difference.

The Trouble with Meddling

The complexities associated with any major weapons system are enormous, and elected officials who direct programmatic details very often do more harm than good.

In the early 1960s, both the Navy and Air Force were seeking new aircraft when Robert McNamara was appointed secretary of defense. Like Secretary Cheney, he forced the two Services together in the Tactical Fighter Experimental program. Both services made significant compromises regarding requirements and performance standards. In the end, the Navy cancelled its variant due to weight and performance issues. That left the Air Force with an aircraft (the F-111A) that didn’t meet its specifications and the Navy without a replacement aircraft for its fleet.

The F-35A is currently on a path to success, but the verdict is still out on the F-35B and F-35C. As of this writing, there is no reason to believe they won’t stay the course and prove able to dominate their respective domains. However, the delays and cost overruns that meddling caused may well have been avoided, had the separate Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps programs been allowed to run their respective courses. Had that occurred, the essential role of senior leaders would have been just as it is now—empowering trusted individuals with a task, and applying well-measured friction and accountability to make sure they meet or exceed expectations.

Unfortunately the current administration has established an overarching tone and level of acquiescence through lightly brokered deals and agreements. That tone has engendered a mainstream mindset that views any form of friction in a relationship as brinksmanship. Yet, time has shown that a healthy level of friction is critical to the success of any effort or organization, and that is exactly what President-elect Trump began to apply to our civil-military industrial complex with his tweet on the F-35.

Accountability begins at the top, and it should be more than obvious that the “let’s all get along” way of doing business with and within the United States is very rapidly coming to an end. It is both long overdue, and apt to change the state of play with and within the United States for the foreseeable future. And it will make the F-35, and the programs that follow, better.

A 25-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force with over 4,000 hours of fighter and attack time, John Venable is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, and the author of Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance.

Image: Test flight of Norway's first F-35. Flickr/Creative Commons/Norwegian Ministry of Defense