Tuesday, October 12, 2010


This is a bit I wrote for my local paper. I could have said much more but there is a 650 word limit. 

The F-35 program has national security implications that reach far beyond local concerns. 

As an issue of resource allocation, the hugely expensive F-35 program jeopardizes air defense capability as it absorbs more and more of DOD appropriations. Any rational person looking forward can anticipate those allocations shrinking while the costs of the F-35 will continue to rise. We currently have the smallest, oldest and yet most expensive military fleet since WWII. The further allocation of vast resources to a program that is experiencing massive failures in both the budgetary and testing realms at the real near term detriment of our air capability is suicidal. 

The F-35 was initially priced at $50 million. The price now stands at $120 million with 10 years left in the development cycle. This enormous increase can be explained by the need to build significant variations on the basic platform for the different services that will be using the plane. This is ironic when you understand the F-35 was initially pitched as a cost saver due entirely to the assumption that the same plane could be used in all services with only minor alterations. The reality is the different services cannot be adequately served with a single fighter. Trying to strap on the functionality each service requires late in the development cycle not only produces a plane with mediocre functionality but that mediocre functionality comes at a much higher price.
The F-35 program has twice violated the Nunn-McCurdy Act that "calls for the termination of programs whose total cost grew by more than 25% over the original estimate, unless the United States Secretary of Defense submits a detailed explanation certifying that the program is essential to the national security, that no suitable alternative of lesser cost is available, that new estimates of total program costs are reasonable, and that the management structure is adequate to control costs."  Although DOD officials profess the F-35 program meets the standard, none of this is true. Existing specialized planes with minor alterations can run all the ANG missions the USAF says it needs the F-35 for and other forces would do quite well with the other proven and less expensive fighters. Additionally, the pentagon recently withdrew certification of Lockheed Martin’s system of tracking aircraft costs and schedules because of “persistent deficiencies” that have stood uncorrected for three years.  How this indicates their confidence in program costing estimates and management is mystifying. 

The plane is currently in an unprecedented level of concurrency, with production and testing occurring at the same time. This concurrency guarantees the first planes off the will be duds. The implications for battle readiness are obvious. What isn’t obvious is the effect cost and performance uncertainty will have on the volume of international sales. The viability of the whole program rests upon selling a certain number of planes.
Due to climbing costs and technology problems, many foreign buyers (Israel, Norway, Denmark, Canada, Japan, and Australia) are delaying their decisions about purchasing the F-35. That they are not reneging on their agreement to buy has more to do with the lucrative F-35 production contracts only available to partner (buyer)nations than their enthusiasm for the F-35. Partner nation incentives outsource a large percentage of F-35 component manufacturing. This incentive program effectively neuters any praise worthy domestic job creation effects. Additionally, offset deals with nations like Israel effectively leave the US taxpayer buying the plane for the partner nation. 

Not only is the “essential” nature of the F-35 program indefensible, its flagrant cost and development over-runs require it be condemned as an example of rewarding failure: heaping copious rewards upon entities which at best fail to produce what they’ve promised and at worst cynically exaggerate their claims of what can be done in order to secure funding and their place in the continuum of Too Big To Fail.  

The greatest danger to our national security is our indebtedness, not our enemies. With two wars charged to our Chinese credit card and programs like the F-35 sucking the life out of our military capabilities, we continue to enable the political chess game of DOD decision making that is both feckless and reckless at our peril.

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