We Need More Bang for the Buck Than the F-35 Delivers

September 20, 2019 Updated: September 20, 2019


Military spending is very much in the news right now, especially with Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently detailing his plans to shift some $3.6 billion in appropriations to pay for parts of a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border.

Also, with the recent drone attack on the Saudi oil field, national security concerns and our ability to respond to them are of utmost importance.

Such a plan raises important constitutional questions about the role of the legislative and executive branches. The fiscal questions it raises, however, are easier to answer.

In the big picture, there’s plenty of money to trim from the Pentagon budget. Let’s look no further than a single weapon platform, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

The JSF was dreamed up back in the Clinton administration as the ultimate next-generation system. A single design would replace several different types of aircraft. A single frame would deliver close-air support, long-range bombing, and stealth fighting. It seemed too good to be true.

It was.

By trying to do everything, the JSF has ended up unable to do anything well. That wasn’t the only problem, though. As Popular Mechanics says, “The Pentagon hoped to take advantage of ‘concurrency’: that is, the idea of keeping down costs by building production planes at the same time it was finishing ground and flight testing.” Instead of saving money, that ended up costing money.

Errors that should have been fixed early on were instead built into new aircraft, to be discovered later and repaired at great cost. The untested plane ended up too heavy, not stealthy enough, and its weapons systems weren’t accurate. All these errors added greatly to the price, which is now expected to be $1.5 trillion over its five-decade useful lifespan. That number just keeps going up.

Just this year, in fact, the Pentagon announced that the expected price to develop and deliver the JSF has increased by $22 billion (current dollars, adjusted for inflation). Let that sink in. There may be no need to cannibalize other parts of the military budget; for $22 billion, you could build more than six walls along the Mexican border. Or at least build one wall, and use the savings elsewhere.

Yet instead of looking to the JSF to make cuts, lawmakers are looking to spend ever more on the program. For fiscal year 2020, the Trump administration asked for 78 JSFs. House appropriators put in funding for 102. That’s happened in previous years as well. The JSF program comes in over-budget, the jet underperforms, and then lawmakers want more of them.

One reason, perhaps, is because contractor Lockheed Martin has a supply chain that stretches across many states and congressional districts. Lawmakers may be afraid to end what they see as essentially a high-tech jobs program.

However, the defense budget is too important to squander on pork projects.

Our military needs weapons platforms that deliver, and the JSF doesn’t do that. As of 2018, some 260 “high priority” performance and safety deficiencies in the jet were unaddressed, keeping it from achieving operational readiness. The jets that do fly aren’t very useful.

“As of now, testing shows the F-35 is incapable of performing most of the functions required for an acceptable close support aircraft, functions the A-10 is performing daily in current combat,” the National Interest reported in 2018.

Designers can’t even get the simple things right: The pilot helmets don’t line up correctly with the weapons’ display, so the cannon aren’t accurate.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon already has an effective and lower-cost option. The “legacy” F-15. A 2015 Pentagon Selected Acquisition report cited by Popular Mechanics found that “the F-35A’s cost per flying hour is $32,500 while the F-16C/D is $25,500.” That’s called more bang for the buck.

As congress considers the fiscal year 2020 budget this fall, it would be refreshing to see lawmakers get serious about reducing wasteful spending. Slashing the JSF program would be a good place to start.

Jon Justice is author of the science fiction space opera series “Embark,” and is a radio talk show host on Twin Cities News Talk, Minneapolis.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Jon Justice
Jon Justice