Time to Rethink the F-35

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program has ground to a halt yet again. Toward the end of June, a pilot at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida was about to begin a routine training exercise when the tail of his F-35 caught on fire. Following that incident, Pentagon officials decided to ground the jets indefinitely on July 3rd. The fleet had previously been grounded in early June due to an oil leak during flight. Unfortunately, for proponents of the acquisition, this news comes right before several exhibition events in the UK. At the Farnborough International Airshow, the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin (the company building the jets) had planned on demonstrating the F-35’s capabilities. The much-anticipated jet is now highly unlikely to be seen at Farnborough, which runs from July 14-20.

The planned demonstration at the airshow this week was geared to garner interest in the F-35 from potential buyers. More orders of F-35 jets would lower the price of each, but Lockheed Martin has only seen cancellations lately. Canadian authorities recently paused their order of F-35s, stating a need to view other options through a procurement competition. Italy already cut its original order from 131 jets to 90, and speculation suggests they will cut that number further. Australian officials had similar thoughts, reassessing their schedule for purchasing the troubled planes. For the Pentagon, this means the price of each jet will rise. For taxpayers footing the bill, more of their dollars will be pledged to this enormously expensive acquisition.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program has repeatedly exceeded cost estimates and failed to meet deadlines. In 2001, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated the entire program would cost $233 billion. In 2012, when the program had already missed every operational deadline by at least four years, GAO reassessed costs to reach $395.7 billion. In 2005, the Air Force expected to be the first military branch to receive its F-35s, but that deadline has since moved to 2016. The Marines will now be getting their jets beginning in 2015, nine years later than originally planned. The Navy will receive their jets last in 2018, a full ten years late. As timelines extend, costs grow. Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) continuing longer than planned adds costs the Pentagon never predicted. If this portion of the program is complete by 2018, the additional RDT&E will cost taxpayers $39.1 billion. With no certainly that the F-35s will be operational by the new deadline, costs could continue to soar.

The Cost Assessment Program Evaluation (CAPE) office estimated in 2012 that the long-term costs of procuring and operating F-35s will be $1.45 trillion over 50 to 60 years. While taxpayers have invested considerably in the F-35 jets, it is better to stop investments now than continue to waste resources on a broken program. With dangerous malfunctions, demand dropping, and no end in sight, Congress should immediately reevaluate the future of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. Some have suggested scrapping the program altogether in favor of procuring upgrades of proven designs like the F-18 or renovating venerable performers such as the A-10. Others, including NTU, have suggested a hybrid fleet that allows a right-sized purchase of F-35s for the Air Force (assuming performance issues are resolved). Either way, elected officials owe our service people and taxpayers a more thoughtful, vigorously overseen procurement process.

If ever there were a time for a prudent pause in a terribly troubled program, it is now.