The F-35 Lightning II, the most expensive manned aircraft programme the US has ever produced with an expected lifetime cost of 1.3 trillion USD is back in the news for all the wrong reasons. Early February 2021, Bloomberg reported that the software on the F-35 was so problematic that software subject matter experts from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute, and the Georgia Tech Research Institute were called in to fix it. The next week, Bloomberg also reported that the US Air Force had to cut back by one-third the number of exhibition flights of the F-35 demonstration team due to lack of parts for the Raytheon produced engines. These and other problems have caused Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, in an online event with Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Foundation in March 2021, to describe the F-35 programme as a rathole wherein good money is continually thrown after bad. The New York Times, in an editorial subsequent to the Brookings discussion with Chairman Smith, described it as a boondoggle that America is stuck with. The question that is certainly on the minds of many is how did the F-35 get here and what, if anything can be done now about it?
The F-35, produced by Lockheed Martin as prime contractor, is the production run version of the X-35, which beat out Boeing’s X-32, to win the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) competition back in 2001, twenty years ago now, after a four-year competition. The premise of the JSF programme was to consolidate a wide variety of various different aircraft systems across the US air fleet as well as those of NATO partners. Each branch of the US Armed Forces that was supposed to get the JSF was supposed to get a version unique to its needs (the Navy’s to be able to deal with carrier landings so outfitted with a tailhook & other carrier friendly features (the C variant), the Marine Corps’ designed to for vertical and shortened take-offs and landings (VSTOL, the B variant), and the Air Force’s conventional take-off and landing version (the A variant)). It was meant to be a jack of all trades aircraft able to do all forms of aerial missions, from air-to-air combat to close air support and everything else in between. It was also meant to be an aircraft where the three different variants shared upwards of 75 per cent of total parts in common.
Very quickly on, the F-35 had a wide range of problems that have extended to this day, those problems, as reported, have included:
- In 2012: The F-35 was described as being on the brink of budgetary disaster in a report to Congress by the Air Force and GAO.
- In 2012: a senior pilot in the US Air Force wrote of the litany of issues that an all-stealth oriented air fleet would have, stating: “Stealth technology demands significant trade-offs in range, security, weapons carriage, sortie generation, and adaptability. Stealth provides no advantage in conflicts such as those in Afghanistan or Iraq (since 2003), and (despite its obvious utility) it cannot guarantee success in future struggles with a near-peer adversary.”. He went on and also stated: “Most importantly, the cost of F-22s and F-35s threatens to reduce the size of the Air Force’s fielded fighter fleet to dangerously small numbers, particularly in the current fiscal environment.”
- In 2014: Regarding the then new budget: “The bill also includes four more F-35 planes than the Pentagon requested, for a total of 38 planes. The F-35 is already more than a decade overdue, more than 100 percent over budget, and it currently can’t fly at night, in clouds, or near lightning.”
- In 2014: The F-35 was reported to be unable to operate its 25mm autocannon because the software hadn’t been developed and tested. In fact, it was supposed to be fixed by 2019 with a software upgrade, and as of the end of 2020…it wasn’t.
- In 2015: It was reported that the Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II) did not fit onto F-35B without modifications to the aircraft’s weapons bay, and furthermore, that it wouldn’t get the software upgrade needed for the close air support mission until 2022.
- In 2015: The F-35, amongst the things it can’t do is dogfight. The Air Force in its infinite wisdom is saying that doesn’t matter because given its advanced sensors and long-ranged missiles, it won’t NEED to be able to dogfight (the USAF made the same claim in the Vietnam Era with respect to the F-4, which they later needed to fix by adding gun pods to F-4s so that they could engage in air-combat manoeuvring when being attacked by NVA (as well as their allies’) aircraft.)
- In 2016: The Marine Corps was suffering from a lack of usable aircraft was ploughing everything into F-35s when their production rate wasn’t such to replace older aircraft, wherein single F-35B costs a whopping $250 million per plane. That’s more than three times as much as the Navy pays for a new F/A-18E/F, an upgraded version of the basic F/A-18 that the Marines had a chance to purchase back in the 1990s but passed over in favour of waiting for the F-35. As the GAO said of the example above regarding the Marine Corps’ lack of aircraft in 2016: “The cost of extending the lives of current fighter aircraft and acquiring other major weapon systems, while continuing to produce and field new F- 35 aircraft, poses significant affordability risks in a period of austere defence budgets”.
- In 2018: Reports of the Pentagon being unhappy with the F-35 because they’ve started to realise what a lot of people already knew, that trying to make a jack of all trades combat aircraft means it can’t do any one thing well, never mind concurrent development, which drives costs upward.
- In 2019: The Pentagon said that the F-35 broke far too easily and took too long to fix (both of which severely impacts combat effectiveness).
- In 2020: The F-35 was reported, after testing, to have issues with an inaccurate gun, cybersecurity problems, and poor reliability — all of which are bad test results for a military combat aircraft.
The issues go on and on, but they can be summarised as one of three types: 1) Consistent cost overruns so severe that they imperil other DoD priorities, 2) Equipment failures & reliability problems, & 3) issues with stealth technology, that have been reported in a wide range of publications, including: The Washington Post, The NY Times, Wired, The Daily Beast, The National Interest, American Conservative, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, etc. The F-35’s problems have even been parodied in Duffel Blog.
Furthermore, even with the promised overlap of the vast majority of the parts of the three different versions of the F-35, in fact less than 1 in 4 are common across the three versions, not the promised 3 in 4 parts in common. And yet, with all of the problems, the F-35 trudges along, up until now, immune from any of its innumerable problems. Also, from a project management perspective, the F-35 is an unmitigated disaster, no programme should be mismanaged like the F-35 has, constant changes to any project or programme, especially after changes should be locked (which is to say when you’re already into the manufacturing and operational fielding of a weapons system) drives up costs colossally.
The question is, why, despite all of its problems, has it been safe from revision or elimination for so long. The summary reason is a term of art known as “political engineering”. Thomas Christie, co-developer of the Energy-Manoeuvrability Theory as well as former Director of Operational Test and Evaluation at the Pentagon said about the F-35: “This programme is a historic case of political engineering”, and given his career history, he would know that better than most. Political engineering is a term that means distributing the manufacturing through as many firms and locations as possible, maximising the number of constituencies that would be impacted if the programme were adversely impacted in any way. This is an outgrowth of the advice that one time Speaker of the House Thomas P. O’Neill gave to Lido Iacocca when Chrysler was seeking a bail-out after it went bankrupt in the late 1970s was to identify how many states and congressional districts would be impacted if Chrysler were to go out of business. Lee Iacocca and his team did, and used that information to successfully lobby Congress. Since that time, projects have been increasingly designed to draw on parts, materials, and labour, from as many different constituencies as possible to maximise the pain of their cancellation or impingement.
Another major issue, and why good money often follows bad in public projects, is the issue of the “sunk cost fallacy”. A sunk cost, in economic terms, is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. This means that because the money has already been spent, it should not impact what is the most optimal decision to make in the here and now. The sunk cost fallacy is, in effect, that because money has been spent, people feel the need to justify the expense by having something to show for it, and the more money that has already been spent, the higher the psychological need to feel like you get something for the money (behavioural economics tells us there are several reasons why this is so). This is also extremely true in a political case. Do you think politicians in a representative system want to tell the constituents that they taxed they made a mistake in spending all of this money? The answer is an obvious no.
The question now becomes, what can and should be done now? There are any number of possible choices, from going on as it has been done, ploughing more money into a programme that is already well over time and budget as has been done over the last 10–15 years, hoping for a different result even when doing all the same things (paraphrasing Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity), or, accept the fact that the money’s been spent, and despite political pain, that the F-35 just needs to be ended, because like “fetch” in the movie Mean Girls, it’s never going to happen, so with hearings performed to learn lessons needed to make future acquisitions of major defence projects work better. What are those fixes? One of the obvious fixes comes with asking the question upfront with any defence procurement now has to be: How many congressional districts & how many states does the programme touch? In this case, the fewer is the better. Also, not trying to have one combat aircraft replace all others is another easy suggestion to make. There are others, but first, the courage has to come in order to stop adding more stacks of cash what has become a massive pile of burning money.
Notes for the audience:
- This essay is based off of my own personal background and knowledge as a trained engineer, certified project manager, and lifelong aviation enthusiast. It in no way reflects any official position of any organisation with which I am affiliated and should not be taken as such.
- This essay was developed as a position paper for a policy position, as such, it is intended to advocate for a particular perspective, that is to say, whilst it is fact-based, it is not meant to be purely objective, and shouldn’t be held as such.
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- Majumdar, 2014, Daily Beast — https://www.thedailybeast.com/new-us-stealth-jet-cant-fire-its-gun-until-2019
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- Joe Zieja, 2016, Duffel Blog — http://www.duffelblog.com/2016/01/us-hires-george-rr-martin-isis/
 Cost figures derived from several sources, including the GAO’s 2012 report discussing the affordability crisis from June 2012, GAO-12–437, JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER: DOD Actions Needed to Further Enhance Restructuring and Address Affordability Risks — https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-12-437.pdf
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 Capaccio, A.; Air Force Reduces Exhibition Flights on New F-35 Engine Woes (2021–02–10), Bloomberg — https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-10/air-force-cuts-back-exhibition-flights-on-new-f-35-engine-woes
 Gregg, A.; Powerful lawmaker calls F-35 fighter jet a ‘rathole,’ suggests Pentagon should cut its losses (2021–03–06), Washington Post — https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/03/05/adam-smith-f35/
 Editorial Board, NY Times; The Fighter Jet That’s Too Pricey to Fail (2021–03–12) — https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/12/opinion/f-35-fighter-jet-cost.html?searchResultPosition=1
 Axe, D.; Pentagon: Trillion-Dollar Jet on Brink of Budgetary Disaster, Wired (2012–03–21) — https://www.wired.com/2012/03/f35-budget-disaster/
 De Rugy, V.; The Pentagon Can Have Whatever It Wants. As Long As It’s Not Less Money, Reason (2014–12–12) — https://reason.com/2014/12/12/the-military-can-have-whatever-it-wants/
 Majumdar, D.; New U.S. Stealth Jet Can’t Fire Its Gun Until 2019, The Daily Beast (2014–12–31) — https://www.thedailybeast.com/new-us-stealth-jet-cant-fire-its-gun-until-2019
 Capaccio, A.; F-35’s Gun That Can’t Shoot Straight Adds to Its Roster of Flaws, Bloomberg (2020–01–30) — https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-30/f-35-s-gun-that-can-t-shoot-straight-adds-to-its-roster-of-flaws
 Gady, F.; Oops: US Close-Air Support Bomb Doesn’t Fit on the F-35, The Diplomat (2015–03–14) — https://thediplomat.com/2015/03/oops-us-close-air-support-bomb-doesnt-fit-on-the-f35/
 Capaccio, A.; Why the Pentagon Isn’t Happy With the F-35, Bloomberg (2018–01–24) — https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-24/lockheed-f-35-s-reliability-progress-has-stalled-pentagon-told
 Keller, J.; The F-35 breaks too easily and takes too long to fix, Pentagon says, Task & Purpose (2019–11–14) — https://taskandpurpose.com/news/f35-reliability-issues/
 Gallagher, S.; DOD tester’s report: F-35 is still a lemon, Ars Technica (2020–01–30) — https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2020/01/not-a-straight-shooter-dod-review-cites-fleet-of-faults-in-f-35-program/
 Trevithick, J.; The F-35 is still horribly broken, The Week (2016–02–26) — https://theweek.com/articles/605165/f35-still-horribly-broken
 There have been various discussions of the concept, including in MWI in 2017 (https://mwi.usma.edu/reassessing-ikes-warning-acquisition-unwarranted-influence/), on the Project of Government Oversight in 2020 (https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2020/01/never-the-pentagon/), and Political Research Quarterly back in 2000 (https://doi.org/10.2307/449259)
 O’Neill, T. P. (with Novak, W.): Man of the House (Random House, 1987), pg. 325
 Mankiw, N. G.; Principles of Microeconomics (5th ed., 2009), pgs. 296–297
 Daniel Kahneman, who collaborated in this area with Amos Tversky, won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his extensive work in this area