The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

F-35 Approved for Combat, Problems Persist

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


The acquisition misadventures of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program have been well-documented.  In development for nearly 15 years and four years behind schedule, the program is currently projected to cost $391.1 billion for 2,457 aircraft, or 68 percent more than its original estimate of $233 billion.  An April 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that the lifetime operation and maintenance costs of the most expensive weapon system in history will total approximately $1 trillion. 

Top Pentagon officials have acknowledged the procurement disaster.  Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (ATL) Frank Kendall referred to the purchase of the F-35 as “acquisition malpractice” in February 2014.

Despite the multitude of existing problems in the program, word came on July 31, 2015 that the Marine version of the aircraft (F-35B) was approved for combat.  The Air Force version (F-35A) is slated for approval next year, with the Navy’s version (F-35C) set to follow in 2019. 

Significant problems in the JSF program include persistent software delays, a lack of communication with other aircraft, issues with the pilot’s helmet resulting in poor rearward visibility and night vision capability, and a gun that will not shoot for at least two more years. 

Beyond the litany of setbacks and drawbacks, doubts exist as to whether the JSF will be an improvement over the aircraft it is set to replace.  Many members of Congress, including Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who served 26 years in the Air Force and retired as a full Colonel in 2010, have questioned whether the F-35 will exceed the performance of the (far cheaper) A-10 in close air support of troops on the ground.  A January 2015 simulation, which pitted the JSF against F-16s, another of the aircraft due to be replaced, found the F-35 to be at a disadvantage in air-to-air combat, according to a leaked test pilot’s report.

Nevertheless, with so much invested in the program, it has become increasingly difficult to make the case that the JSF should be scrapped altogether.  Despite its many remaining flaws, the combat approval of the different iterations of the F-35s likely means the U.S. will be tied to the program in some form for better or worse.

As a result, the debate over the JSF’s disastrous procurement track record should shift to ensure that future programs do not similarly burn taxpayers.  Many of the problems with the F-35 program can be traced back to the decision to operate program development and procurement simultaneously.  This meant that whenever problems were identified, contractors needed to go back and make changes to aircraft that were already in production.  In other words, the program was advancing based upon designs that were flawed. 

This problematic trend has existed for quite some time, and has been repeatedly addressed by the annual GAO report that inspects the Pentagon’s Major Defense Acquisition Portfolio, which is comprised of the largest Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition programs.

Pentagon brass have weighed in on the subject.  Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James stated, “The biggest lesson I have learned from the F-35 is never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re building it.” 

A proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) appearing in the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act represents an effort to counteract the delayed programs and escalating costs inherent in defense acquisition.  The idea is to shift control of weapons procurement authority for non-joint programs from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for ATL to the acquisition executives of the individual services.  The decentralized acquisition is designed to initiate a faster-paced process and make senior officials more accountability for their own programs.

The plan would also create incentives to reduce cost overruns and promote the use of more fixed-price contracts, which place the burden of cost overruns on contractors.  Finally, it would attempt to remove barriers to entry for new companies that might wish to compete for military contracts but do not have a history of working with the Pentagon. 

While the DOD now has limited options to mitigate the damage caused by the calamitous JSF program, the most reasonable of which would maintain the use of A-10s, F-16s, and F/A-18s set to be retired and severely restrict the procurement of F-35s in an effort to cut costs, the focus should be on ensuring that future weapons platforms do not similarly spiral out of control.  The Pentagon must apply the lessons of past acquisition programs and always ensure that the interests of both warfighters and taxpayers are being served.

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