The Flying White Elephant
It’s been a bad month for American aviation. The 787 Dreamliner, our premier airliner, remains grounded due to safety issues. Now Wired is reporting that the F-35 Lightning II, intended to serve as America’s fighter-bomber of the future, has had its performance requirements downgraded. The Pentagon is admitting that the aircraft will be delivered “heavier, slower and more sluggish” than it had hoped. The Lightning II will be more vulnerable and less capable in combat.
Worse, these are hardly the F-35’s first problems—it’s endured a litany of technical and budgetary issues. Acquisition plans have been dramatically scaled back—while America originally intended to have nearly 1,600 aircraft in operation in 2017, it now aims for just 365—and the aircraft has been temporarily barred from operating near thunderstorms amid fears that a strike could cause it to explode. Some are even skeptical that it’s stealthy enough to operate in a modern threat environment. The aircraft was designed to be used by multiple countries and multiple armed services while retaining many of the same features and parts. Instead, the F-35 may be a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Understandably, foreign buyers are cutting back on their purchase plans, and the project is facing ever-increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and the media. The United States needs to ask itself several questions.
First, are cost overruns, performance issues and long development periods a necessary element of modern fighter development, or is there something wrong with the development and acquisitions process? There’s no denying that the F-35 has some extremely sexy technology on board—among other things, its advanced helmet allows the pilot to see in any direction (including through the aircraft, thanks to cameras). Getting such technologies to operate smoothly on their own and with each other was always going to be a complex and time-consuming process.
The complexity is compounded by the fact that this is a combat aircraft, so it will need both high reliability and relatively quick, simple maintenance to avoid becoming a liability in war. Still, it is somewhat boggling to see other heavy industries turning around projects quickly, Chinese aircraft manufacturers (historically regarded as third-rate copycats) spewing out prototypes, and advanced technologies being swiftly adopted throughout the economy even as the F-35 struggles to become operational in less than two decades. The Empire State Building was built in a little more than a year; the GBU-28 bunker buster was developed in a few weeks in 1991, and an adapted version is still in use. Has innovation really gotten so much harder?
Second, are politics at play? It’s hard not to see a political-economic factor in the mediocrity: the program’s defenders regularly tout the number of people it employs as an argument against cuts, and components of the aircraft are manufactured in forty-eight states and around the world. Any legislator voting against the project would thus face accusations of killing jobs in his own state; any legislator defending it can tout the in-state jobs she’s saved from the axe. This reduces the political risk to the program, warping incentives to make the aircraft quickly and cheaply. Defense spending may be an inefficient way of propping up the economy, but it’s an efficient way of propping up incumbents.
Third, are we approaching a decision point with the F-35, or have things already gone too far to try a new tack? The average age of America’s tactical aircraft fleet has been steadily increasing for two decades, and the capabilities of potential enemies like Russia and China have been improving. At some point, our current large fleet of older aircraft might be less effective than a small, mediocre but modern fleet of F-35s. That’s not certain, though—if the F-35 turns into a true logistics and maintenance nightmare, or if its stealthiness only provides a marginal increase in survivability, it could be less effective than our current set of aircraft. Still, if we can’t find a way to develop good aircraft in a short time, backing out on the F-35 could see us using forty- and fifty-year-old fighters.