EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The F-35 has features that make pilots drool. It is shaped to avoid detection by enemy radar. It can accelerate to supersonic speeds.
One model can take off and land vertically. Onboard electronic sensors and computers provide a 360-degree view of the battlefield on flat-panel screens, allowing pilots to quickly identify targets and threats.
But its greatest strength has nothing to do with those attributes. The Defense Department and Lockheed Martin, the giant contractor hired to design and build the plane, have constructed what amounts to a budgetary force field around the nearly $400 billion program.
On a recent day in the Florida Panhandle, the matte-gray fighter jet, with an ear-ringing roar, streaked down Runway 12 and sliced into a cloudless afternoon sky. To those watching on the ground, the sleek, bat-winged fuselage soon shrank into a speck, and then nothing at all, as Marine Capt. Brendan Walsh arced northward in America’s newest warplane, the F-35 Lightning II.
Also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, it is the costliest weapons system in U.S. history and the single most expensive item in the 2013 Pentagon budget. Still, it will face only a glancing blow from the sequester this year. And as the White House and Congress contemplate future budgets, those pushing for additional cuts may find it difficult to trim more than a fraction of the Pentagon’s proposed fleet, even though the program is years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial price tag.
The reasons for the F-35’s relative immunity are a stark illustration of why it is so difficult to cut the country’s defense spending. Lockheed Martin has spread the work across 45 states, including Oregon — critics call it “political engineering" — which in turn has generated broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Any reduction in the planned U.S. purchase risks antagonizing the eight other nations that have committed to buying the aircraft by increasing their per-plane costs. And senior military leaders warn that the stealthy, technologically sophisticated F-35 is essential to confront Iran, China and other potential adversaries that may employ advanced anti-aircraft defenses.
The biggest barrier to cutting the F-35 program, however, is rooted in the way it was developed: The fighter jet is being mass-produced and placed in the hands of military aviators such as Walsh, who are not test pilots, while the aircraft remains a work in progress. Millions more lines of software code have to be written, vital parts need to be redesigned, and the plane has yet to complete 80 percent of its required flight tests. By the time all that is finished — in 2017, by the Pentagon’s estimates — it will be too late to pull the plug. The military will own 365 of them.
By then, “we’re already pregnant," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who oversees F-35 development for the Pentagon.
When the F-35 finishes testing, “there will be no yes-or-no, up-or-down decision point," said Pierre Sprey, who was a chief architect of the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. “That’s totally deliberate. It was all in the name of ensuring it couldn’t be canceled."
The Pentagon has long permitted equipment to be produced while it is still being tested, with the intent of getting cutting-edge gear to warriors more quickly, but senior military officials said the F-35 takes the approach to new extremes. Doing so has served as more than a hedge against cuts — it has also driven up the overall price. The 65 aircraft that already have been built, and those that will be assembled over the next few years, will require substantial retrofits that could cost as much as $4 billion as problems are uncovered during testing, the officials said.
Initial tests already have yielded serious problems that are forcing significant engineering modifications. The entire fleet was grounded earlier this year because of a crack in the fan blade in one jet’s engine. The Marine Corps’ version has been prohibited from its signature maneuver — taking off and landing vertically — because of a design flaw. And the Navy model has not been able to land on an aircraft carrier because its tail hook, an essential feature to alight aboard a ship, needs to be redesigned. The Pentagon’s top weapons tester issued a scathing report on the F-35 this year that questioned the plane’s reliability and warned of a “lack of maturity" in performance.
When the F-35 program was first approved by the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin said it could develop and manufacture 2,852 planes for $233 billion. The Pentagon now estimates the total price tag at $397.1 billion. And that is for 409 fewer planes.
The overall program is almost four times more costly than any other weapons system under development. Taxpayers have already spent $84 billion on the plane’s design and initial production. By contrast, the production of 18,000 B-24 bombers during World War II cost less than $60 billion, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
‘Superstar’ or ‘bait-and-switch’?
To the plane’s backers, including senior leaders of the Air Force and Marine Corps, the benefit is worth the cost. Unlike the infantry, which still accepts battlefield casualties as part of war, military aviators have grown accustomed to a different risk calculus since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when U.S. warplanes quickly established air superiority over Iraq with minimal losses: They want to ensure that, whatever the future conflict, their planes are packed with enough offensive and defensive measures to accomplish the mission and avoid getting shot down.
“This aircraft reinforces the way Americans go to war. ... We don’t want to win 51-49. We want to win 99 to nothing," said Lt. Gen. Frank Gornec, the assistant vice chief of staff of the Air Force. He said he is convinced the F-35 “will become a superstar in the arsenal of the United States."
Many independent defense analysts do not share that conviction. To them, the plane’s political engineering and buy-before-you-fly procurement mask deep problems with performance and affordability.
“It was a bait-and-switch operation; we were overpromised benefits and under-promised costs," said Chuck Spinney, a former Pentagon analyst who gained widespread attention in the 1980s for issuing pointed warnings about the military’s pursuit of unaffordable weapons. “But by the time you realize the numbers don’t add up, you can’t get out of the program."
The F-35 program, which commenced 12 years ago, was intended to be a model of how to build a modern fighter. The same airframe would be used to produce planes for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, with only modest modifications to address service-specific needs, hence the name Joint Strike Fighter. The commonality, proponents argued, would allow the three services to mount more coordinated wartime missions, and, perhaps more important, it would drive down development, assembly and maintenance costs.
That was essential because the Pentagon needs a lot of F-35s. It is supposed to replace thousands of legacy aircraft including the F-16, a workhorse of the Air Force fleet, and every fighter jet owned by the Marine Corps. The F-35 was pitched as the answer because it was supposed to be affordable — in the relative terms of fighter jets — and could be acquired in larger quantities than the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s new high-performance fighter.
Pentagon officials accepted Lockheed’s claim that computer simulations would be able to identify design problems, minimizing the need to make changes once the plane actually took to the sky. That, in turn, led to an aggressive plan to build and test the aircraft simultaneously.
Cautioning that all of those assumptions were flawed, Spinney and other defense analysts urged the Pentagon to see the plane in flight before committing to buy it. But senior Defense Department officials in the Bush administration did not heed the warnings.
Within months, the program began veering off course.