It’s Time to Cut Our Losses on the F-35
In Fiscal Year 2016, the United States Department of Defense is expected to spend approximately $11 billion on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. With China already possessing their own alleged F-35 derivative and other competitors, such as Russia, developing peer-level capabilities, the Pentagon should look into scaling back the F-35 program – but not necessarily canceling it all together. For all its shortcomings and cost overruns, there is value in having the F-35 as a short-term stopgap on the way to more specialized next-generation aircraft.
The key issue with trying to cancel and replace the F-35 at this point, putting aside the fact that planes have already been delivered and are in service for multiple U.S. allies, is that the defense industrial base has been adapted for it over the course of twenty years. It’s less of a sunken cost fallacy and more of a cold reality that too much time, money, and effort has been invested into the F-35 to cancel the program and start over, or to regress to an earlier, potentially more effective design like the F-22 – which, it should be noted, had its own history of flaws, overruns, and defects. Anything new will, by necessity, be shaped by the F-35’s industrial footprint. It is therefore unfeasible to simply cut the program in its entirety.
A more realistic solution, at least domestically, would be to limit F-35 production to about 1,500 planes intended for the U.S. Air Force and Navy, as opposed to the current plan to field 2,457 between the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. From there, lessons learned could be channeled into producing more specialized aircraft for each individual service. Replacing the venerable, and decrepit, A-10 Warthog should become an immediate priority in this case, especially since the F-35’s close air support performance is questionable. Perhaps a better replacement could be assembled by simply ‘Frankensteining’ a new A-10-like design out of repurposed F-35 materials in order to shave time off of prototyping and research costs. While the final product would undoubtedly differ from its precursors both in terms of performance and appearance, it would benefit from lessons learned over the design and lifetime of both. It would also serve as a testbed for the Air Force and Navy in combining the best of the F-35 with the best of what they already have.
Incidentally, the notion of a Joint Strike Program itself could perhaps be preserved, mainly as a means of preventing duplicative efforts. Such a program could serve as a communal hub for research and materials while also insuring the basic interchangeability of parts and fuel. Another, potentially more radical solution to the F-35 problem, proposed by national defense scholar T.X. Hammes, involves recognizing the end of the era of manned aircraft as we know it in favor of mass produced drones. While unmanned aerial vehicles might be more vulnerable than human operators to cyberattacks or simple command delays, the ability to rapidly print, field, and replace massive numbers of weapons cannot be overlooked.
Whatever the solution at home, it’s worth pointing out that replacing the F-35 will not be easy from an international relations standpoint. Partner nations as diverse as Australia, Israel, the Netherlands and South Korea have all invested in the Joint Strike Fighter. Italy and Japan both have assembly plants dedicated to the F-35 and the first planes were recently delivered to the United Kingdom. Any plan to scrap the F-35 program must take all of this into account. Ultimately, it’s not just about domestic military needs; the United States’ reputation as the world’s premier arms manufacturer and exporter is at stake. This represents another layer of difficulty if the Joint Strike Program is to be preserved in any meaningful way. There are added security risks involved, a larger and more diverse manufacturing base that must be adapted, the need to maintain at least some degree of common knowledge among American forces and allied nations, and needs at home must be weighed against the needs of partners abroad. The need to effectively develop specialized, interoperable aircraft tailored to each nation’s needs is paramount.
It makes little sense to adopt a one-size-fits-all mentality to air superiority – the F-35 experience is proof enough of that. Joint fighters are a good idea on paper. In theory, they can save time, money, and effort. In the real world, we should cut our losses and move on.