Debate over the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has reached a fever pitch in recent months as advocates and critics of the program battle it out in the pages of Beltway publications—all for the purpose of influencing congressional support of the program. With battle lines clearly drawn, it is worth taking an objective look at the key arguments raised by both sides.
On the one hand, there are those who believe the JSF is the right aircraft for the United States, even if some time is required to work out the technical issues that arise in such an advanced aircraft. Advocates in the services, industry, and associated think tanks view much of the criticism of the JSF as undeserved, shortsighted, biased, ill informed, and a misrepresentation of the platform’s capabilities and costs.
On the other hand, there are those who see the F-35 as a failed acquisition program that illustrates the inherent incompetence, graft and corruption all too common in Washington, DC, facilitated by deep-pocketed contractors stuffing the campaign coffers of Congressmen.
Needless to say, there is little consensus between the two sides, with all indicators suggesting that reaching common ground is unlikely. With much of the debate being a mix of tendentious argument and distaste for the other side, an unbiased look at the F-35 debate is conspicuously absent. While neither side has a clear silver-bullet argument, each side does offer points worth contemplating. Thus, the remainder of this article examines the three strongest arguments made by advocates and critics, of the JSF. It also offers what are believed to be the most compelling recommendations made by each side.
F-35: Savior of American Airpower
Advocates make three arguments that, upon closer examination, are most persuasive for keeping the F-35: acquisition history, allies, and options.
While much of the criticism of the F-35 has revolved around cost, schedule, and technical challenges, advocates make a logical case in countering such critiques of the program. Critics argue the JSF is over budget, behind schedule, and suffering from a variety of technological shortcomings and for the most part, these arguments are correct. But to suggest the program should be cancelled because of these issues shows a poor understanding of airpower history. As Peter Grier has deftly noted, these same challenges were true for the F-15, AWACS, and C-17 programs as well. Every one of these programs was significantly over budget, far behind schedule and suffered a variety of technical challenges that critics thought were too difficult to overcome.
In 1982, Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) called the F-15 a “dubious purchase” and urged the Air Force to buy the less expensive F-14 instead. However, had Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO) had his way in 1973, the F-14 program would have never matured to the point that Senator Levin would have thought the plane a better investment than the F-15.
In fact, Senator Levin was not the first person to find fault in the F-15 program. A decade earlier, in 1973, the House Armed Services Committee cut funding for the F-15 in half because of a string of engine fires that occurred. The humor and irony in this point is that one F-35 critic recently used the very same technical issue, an F-35 engine fire, to justify cancellation of the JSF program and continued investment in F-15 upgrades. Perhaps F-35 critics are unaware of their favored airplane’s bumpy development history.
What is most troubling is that if critics had their way, there would be no F-14 (no Maverick, no Goose, no Cougar, and no Charlie Blackwood), no F-15 (rated one of history’s top fighters by an F-35 critic, and no F-16 (which critics also sought to kill). Had critics been successful in ending these programs, for many of the same reasons as current critics are seeking to kill the F-35 program, the United States would still be flying the same F-4s it flew during Vietnam.
The E-3 AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control) was derided by the New Republic in April 1974 as a “complete phony” and an aircraft that would not survive in aerial combat and had little to no purpose. History has proven AWACS very useful in a number of scenarios that were not foreseen in 1974.
If the previous examples are not enough, in May of 1993 the Department of Defense notified McDonnell Douglas that it would cancel the C-17 unless the contractor overhauled the troubled program. Critics of the C-17 were ecstatic at the thought of the program being cancelled. They had long sought to end the purchase of an over budget, behind schedule, technically troubled airlifter that they thought the nation did not require. Fortunately for the United States, the C-17 program was not cancelled because American combat efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq were heavily reliant on the capability provided by US Air Force C-17s. These conflicts would have been very different had the C-17 program been cancelled in 1993 and not in a good way.
In a key instance where an aircraft acquisition program was terminated because it was over budget, behind schedule, and facing technical challenges, the strategic consequences have proven palpable. Currently, the United States’ long-range stealth bomber fleet numbers sixteen operationally deployable aircraft. Considering the number of stealth bombers, the ability of the United States to sustain a bombing campaign against an advanced adversary is greatly challenged. This should give Americans reason for pause as China, Iran, North Korea, Russia increasingly assert their interests in places and ways that challenge the United States.
Don’t Forget the Allies
If airpower history and the striking similarities between the JSF and previous development and acquisition programs are not compelling, the needs of American allies should be considered. When Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the U.K. became international partners in the development and acquisition of the F-35 they placed a significant trust in the United States with the expectation that we would complete the aircraft’s development and field it in large enough numbers that it would be affordable for these nations to purchase.
What many critics fail to appreciate is both the unprecedented cooperation that was required to bring such a large group of international partners together for such a critical joint development program and the harm to America’s reputation and credibility that will result from reducing the buy or terminating the program. For many of the nations involved, and other allies expected to purchase the JSF, they have already begun decommissioning older aircraft so that they may be replaced by the F-35. For these nations there is no backup plan.
It is not just the international partners involved in the JSF program that we should be concerned with. Countries like India, Japan, and Korea are watching this drama unfold in order to make a determination as to how reliable of a partner the United States will prove. For a country that seeks to lead the world, credibility is everything.
Options, What Options?
The reality of the JSF program is that it was purposefully designed to be large in terms of aircraft produced and dispersed across a large number of congressional districts so per unit fly away costs could be driven down and that the program could survive eventual setbacks—as history shows are inevitable. And with domestic spending placing ever increasing pressure on defense budgets, the Department of Defense sought to do what it had failed repeatedly to accomplish in the past, build one fighter for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.
The result of these largely political considerations leaves the services in a situation where options are limited and marginal tradeoffs are painful. The publicly available information from recent exercises suggests the F-35 is superior to fourth generation aircraft in air-to-air combat. Thus, the Air Force Chief of Staff, Chief of Naval Operations, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps cannot, in good conscience, argue that the best course of action is to send American Airmen, Sailors, and Marines into combat in inferior aircraft. Such considerations are taken seriously by senior leaders and cannot be dismissed by critics.
For the services, which must play the hands they are dealt, the lack of viable options makes the best option continuation of the JSF program, all while working to bring flyaway costs down and resolve technical challenges. If history is any indicator of the future, critics of the F-35 replacement, twenty or thirty years from now, will likely argue that the nation should forgo a new fighter and stick with the JSF.
There are significant ways to improve the F-35 program, bringing both flyaway cost down and addressing a variety of technical issues. Four recommendations offered by program advocates are of the greatest utility.
First, cost reduction is best achieved through high-rate production. The JSFs high cost through early production is largely the result of the small number of aircraft purchased. By contrast, the F-16, despite persistent technical issues, went into high rate production from the beginning, allowing the aircraft to be produced economically.