Policymakers get 11th-hour second thoughts on the Joint Strike Fighter
The troubled and long-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program came under renewed scrutiny this week. The Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and many foreign partners plan to buy thousands of the fighter-attack jets over the next two decades to replace a variety of aging aircraft, but the development schedule of the stealthy fighter has slipped five years to 2018 and the projected cost to the Pentagon for 2,457 aircraft has ballooned to $385 billion, making it by far the most expensive weapons program in history.
The Government Accountability Office reported that although Pentagon management of the program is improving, developers have only completely verified 4 percent of the F-35's capabilities. The program received another blow this week when the Senate Armed Services Committee learned that the Pentagon will likely have to spend $1 trillion over the next 50 years to operate and maintain the fleet of F-35s. Evidently reeling from sticker shock, Sen. John McCain demanded that "we at least begin considering alternatives." But is it too late to prevent the F-35 program from devouring the Pentagon's future procurement budgets?
Air Force officials themselves may now doubt the wisdom of the size of the commitment to the F-35. According to a recent Aviation Week story, Air Force Undersecretary Erin Conaton placed new emphasis on the importance of the Air Force's next-generation long-range bomber. With procurement funds sure to be tight in the decade ahead, Conaton hinted that the Air Force may have to raid the F-35's future budgets in order to help pay for the new bomber.
The rapidly changing strategic situation in Asia and the western Pacific should compel policymakers to reexamine the size of the commitment to the F-35. Yet another critical report on the F-35 from the Pentagon's acquisition office dated Dec. 31, 2010, revealed that the Air Force version of the attack jet would have a combat mission radius of 584 miles, just short of the original stated requirement of 590 miles, and significantly less than a recent expectation by program officials that the jet would be able to strike targets 690 miles away without midair refueling.
A combat radius of 584 miles leaves planners with few options when contemplating operations over the vast distances in the Asia-Pacific region. As I discussed in a recent column, China's growing inventories of ballistic and cruise missiles are already capable, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, of striking the U.S. Air Force's main bases in the region. These missiles are also putting the Navy's aircraft carriers increasingly at risk, which could compel the Navy to move the vessels out of the F-35's strike range.
The solution is combat aircraft with much longer ranges, which would operate from distant bases less vulnerable to missile attack. This would explain Conaton's increased emphasis on the new long-range bomber and the Navy's interest in a long-range combat drone that would launch from its aircraft carriers and some of its amphibious ships.
There are still significant roles for the F-35 and many of its leading-edge stealth and electronic capabilities. The F-35 can defend against enemy aircraft, can collect and distribute intelligence from over a battlefield, and can attack heavily defended targets within its range. In any case, the program is "too big to fail," or at least "too big to kill," and it is far too late in the day to now consider alternatives. But it seems increasingly likely that the Air Force and Navy will eventually truncate their planned purchases and redirect those savings into new long-range platforms. Doing so would cause the unit cost of the F-35 to spike even higher which would likely lead many foreign partners to drop out. But that regrettable consequence may be necessary if the Air Force and Navy are to have the money to buy capabilities that will actually be useful in the vast stretches of the Pacific.