In the last few months, a torrent of scorn has been heaped upon the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, seemingly just in time for the fiscal year 2022 defense budget cycle.
The timing, volume, and the sameness of the talking points from the F-35 jet’s opponents is enough to make you wonder where it’s all coming. Not from F-35 pilots certainly, who overwhelmingly favor the aircraft over their previous jets.
Cui bono is Latin for “who benefits?” And that’s the question we probably should be asking. Who benefits from the United States making a decision to abandon the F-35 program?
Russia and China immediately come to mind. Each in their own way has tried to copy the F-35 but thus far have come up short in manufacturing a comparable plane. They’d love the United States to stop buying the F-35 fighter.
After all would Russia, which has seen fit to meddle with U.S. elections and mount sophisticated disinformation campaigns which undermine confidence in U.S. coronavirus vaccines, and even target U.S. armed forces, pass up an opportunity to sway U.S. public opinion against the F-35 jet? Why wouldn’t they target the world’s most advanced fighter weapons systems to minimize its fielding, while they figure out how to make their own stealth work?
What about China? They also created their own false narratives about the origins of the coronavirus, and western countries responses. They also tried to influence elections in Taiwan. While their J-20 stealth jet fighter looks a lot like the F-35 fighter, beneath the surface, it cannot compare. They’d love to see the U.S. stop buying F-35 jets, which would likely defeat J-20s by the vast margins in combat.
Not that it has to be one of America’s adversaries. Even a rival company could orchestrate a campaign to malign the F-35 jet fighter. But it could never be effective. People would see right through it. Wouldn’t they?
Maybe. Or maybe not. Americans generally trust what they read. A recent survey reveals false headlines fool adults 75 percent of the time.
So just how could the Russians, Chinese, or even a competitor company accomplish such dastardly work?
Proxies perhaps? Sounds like the movie Conspiracy Theory, right? But walk with me down this path for a moment.
You might be surprised to learn there is a thriving Washington, D.C. cottage industry of public relations firms hiring authors with seemingly bonafide credentials to write opinion articles on a variety of topics. They are aided in this effort because many legitimate media outlets don’t disclose the role of a PR firm in placing an Op-Ed. Even the author may not know who is ultimately paying him for his “work.”
Once such an article is written, paid or automated agents of industry or adversarial nations can immediately amplify the story by reposting and retweeting it.
But false narratives need false “facts,” and to support their case, critics of the F-35 have latched onto a few to make their case. Most recently, they have cited the cost and the decision to delay the full-rate production decision as cause to give the F-35 a second look.
So, let’s look at cost. Critics cite the F-35s projected lifetime costs of $1.7 trillion as unaffordable.
No matter who you are, $1.7 trillion is a lot of money. But at what point in the history of fighter aircraft has anyone ever added up all of the costs for development, acquisition, maintenance, fuel and support for the projected lifetime of that weapons system?
You can’t name one because this is a new whim, a tactic if you will, of the sound-bite world.
But for the sake of argument, let’s pick one. Add up the lifetime costs of the F-16 jet fighter from its design in early 1970s through the fielding of all ten variants, its service life extension program, the development and fielding of its new electronically scanned array radar, four different engines, the navigation and multiple targeting pods, maintenance, fuel and support costs for the last forty-six years—and let’s not forget the remaining twenty-six years of its projected life.
Or pick the lifetime costs of the A-10, the AV-8B, or the FA-18A/B/C/D warplanes, their major modifications and service life extension programs—and, because the acquisition of the F-22 stealth fighter jet was curtailed, you have to include at least some portion of the F-15A/B/C/D model fleet. All five weapons systems began development in the late 1960s or 1970s and their support costs will still be racking up years beyond the here and now.
And then remember that the F-35 is going to replace them all.
That’s right—you would have to add up totals for all of them to support a claim that the F-35 is a “rathole” for dollars.
Program critics have recently latched onto the Pentagon’s decision to halt the F-35 full rate production declaration for the foreseeable future.
Not because of the jet’s performance—but because the Joint Simulation Environment isn’t working. That’s right, a simulation is unable to test and validate the performance of a simulated F-35 against simulated threats to prove that it can meet performance expectations in that simulated world.
No other fighter has ever been held back from full-rate production because of a simulation. Not any fourth-generation fighter. Not even America’s other stealth fighter, the F-22 jet.
And yet the maligning efforts of the F-35’s competitors and America’s adversaries alike have taken hold, in spite of the facts.
Pilots who have flown fourth-generation aircraft and are now flying the F-35A jet love it. It costs 30 percent less to acquire than a combat-capable F-15EX jet and the cost per flying hour of those two jets are now a wash. And unlike that dated fighter, the F-35 jet can successfully employ in and around missile systems that will be lethal for aircrews who face them in an F-15EX fighter.
America’s adversaries would like nothing better than for the United States to curtail its buy of the F-35, just like Washington did for the F-22, because there is not an allied or adversary platform in production that can come close to competing with the F-35.
And if policymakers really had doubts about how the F-35 will perform in a simulated high-threat environment, why don’t we just ask the Israelis how it does in a real one?
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Fighter Weapons Instructor Course with more than 3,300 hours in the F-16C and a veteran of three combat operations, John “JV” Venable is a senior research fellow for defense policy at The Heritage Foundation.