Fail! The $400 Billion Military Jet That Can't Fly in Cloudy Weather

The F-35 joint strike fighter is an unbelievable failure, and the perfect illustration of everything that's wrong with our military industrial complex.

 

According to one of its supporters, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is not "what our troops need," is "too costly" and "poorly managed," and its "present difficulties are too numerous to detail."

The F-35 is a case study of government failure at all levels - civilian and military, federal, state, local, even airport authority. Not one critical government agency is meeting its obligation to protect the people it presumably represents. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who wrote the F-35 critique above, is hardly unique as an illustration of how government fails, but he sees no alternative to failure.

Up for re-election in 2014 and long a supporter of basing the F-35 in Vermont, Leahy put those thoughts in a letter to a constituent made public March 13. This is Leahy's most recent public communication since December 2012, when he refused to meet with opponents of the F-35 and his web site listed a page of "public discussion" events mostly from the spring, including private briefings with public officials, without responding to any substantive issues.

The F-35 is a nuclear-capable weapon of mass destruction that was supposed to be the "fighter of the future" when it was undertaken in 2001. Now, more than a decade overdue and more than 100% over budget, the plane is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over its useful life, of which about $400 billion has already been spent.

100th F-35 Being Built, None Yet Operational

In January, the Lockheed Martin production facility in Fort Worth, Texas, reported it was well along "in the final phase of building the wings" of the 100th F-35 constructed by the Bethesda, Maryland, company. Of the first 99 F-35s, none are yet operational.

The F-35 isn't even close to fully operational - it can fly only on sunny days. It can't fly at night. And it can't fly in clouds or near lightning. We know this because the Pentagon tells us so, in a report written for the Secretary of Defense by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore, dated February 15, 2013.

Although some media hyped the report as a "leaked document," Gilmore clearly expected the report would become public, since he included a description of its wide distribution within the government, concluding with the reminder: "By law, I must provide Congress with any test-related material it requests."

By March 5, Gilmore's report was on the internet and giving the Canadian government second thoughts about buying the plane at all. Of the ten other countries partnering in F-35 development, Italy has already reduced the number of plane it will eventually buy. Norway, Turkey, and others are also having second thoughts – as is even the United States. Leahy indicates in his letter that "the jet is too costly to proceed with purchases at today's planned levels," which are about 2,400 planes at a currently projected cost of $120 billion each, give or take $30 billion.

Gilmore's report covers the F-35 training program at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida for two months in the fall of 2012, a program originally scheduled to begin in August 2011, but the F-35 wasn't ready then. Even a year later, the training program "was limited by the current restrictions of the aircraft." The program partially trained 4 pilots in 46 days.

If the Pilot Can Eject, He'll Be Lucky Not to Drown

The report's executive summary gives a sense of what some of the "current restrictions" of the F-35 are:

  • Aircraft operating limitations prohibit flying the aircraft at night or in instrument meteorological conditions, hence pilots must avoid clouds and other weather. These restrictions are in place because testing has not been completed to certify the aircraft for night and instrument flight.
  • The aircraft also is currently prohibited from flying close formation, aerobatics, and stalls, all of which would normally be in the familiarization phase of transition training?.
  • The F-35A does not yet have the capability to train in these phases, nor any actual combat capability, because it is still early in system development.
  • Also, little can be learned from evaluating training in a system this immature?.
  • The radar, the pilot's helmet-mounted display (HMD), and the cockpit interfaces for controlling the radios and navigational functions should be improved.

The report also notes that the pilot escape system is not yet reliable, especially if a pilot were to eject over water.

On the blog of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), Winslow Wheeler takes a closer look at the full report under the headline: "The Air Force's F-35A: Not Ready for Combat, Not Even Ready for Combat Training."

What Do You Expect for $400 Billion? Something That Works?

So for $400 billion (and counting), the U.S. has bought an "immature system," a combat fighter still unfit for combat, a plane that has spent much of 2013 grounded for various malfunctions. The General Accounting Office (GOA) report issued this month offers good news of the it's-not-as-bad-as-it-used-to-be kind, as in the finding that production costs are "trending" downward toward targets.

The program continues to make design changes in the F-35 at the rate of about 200 per month, even as the plane continues in production, creating what amounts to a permanent process of retrofitting. The GAO projects that F-35 flight testing may be complete some time in 2017 and the plane might not be ready for combat before 2019.

No wonder the F-35 program's executive officer, Lt.-General Christopher Bogdan, has expressed dissatisfaction with the companies making the plane. The general, who has been with the program since July 2012 and became director in December, didn't use the word "profiteering" to call out two major defense contractors for their shoddy-but-profitable performance on the F-35, but he came close:

"What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney [subsidiary of United Technologies Corp.] doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine and are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and that last engine. I want them both to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years, I want them to take on some of the risk of this program, I want them to invest in cost reductions, I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I'm not getting all that love yet."

Congress Isn't Doing Its Job in This Area, Either

Congressional oversight, which is intended to keep debacles like the F-35 from happening, has failed utterly. Instead, according to Leahy, who as the senior Democratic senator is the president pro tem of the Senate and third in the line of succession to the presidency, leadership is no longer possible.

Like the rest of the Vermont congressional delegation, which includes Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., Leahy has struck a pose of self-imposed helplessness when it comes to basing the world's most expensive and not-yet-operational weapons system in the middle of Vermont's only significant population center, suggesting that the decision is entirely up to the Air Force and civilian control of the military is an outmoded concept of some other America.

The Air Force has twice postponed making a final decision as to whether the F-35 should be based at the Burlington International Airport, even though the Air Force's own environmental report warns that the F-35 is four times as loud as current fighters in Burlington, and that this increase in noise is likely to render at lease 1,300 homes - and perhaps more than 3,000 homes - "unsuitable for residential use."

None of Vermont's congressional delegation has addressed these or other serious issues with any intellectual integrity. Welch has no reference to the F-35 on his web site, and Sanders has nothing more substantive than links to a few brief news stories.

Former Prosecutor Trusts Belief Over Evidence

"I am concerned that some fears have become exaggerated throughout this debate," Leahy wrote in December, relying on the unscientific, unsupported opinion of an Air Force officer. In the same letter, without providing a factual basis, the former county prosecutor added, "I would strongly oppose basing the F-35 in Vermont if I believed its noise would make Winooski or South Burlington unlivable."

One commenter on the POGO Blog story wondered: "When will we bring to justice the flag officers and SESs [senior executive service], past and present, who presided over this abortion? Courts martial, criminal indictments, please? And what about the contractor's violations?

So while some observers are calling for criminal investigations of a boondoggle, Vermont's congressional delegation is still calling for basing the plane in Burlington.

William M. Boardman has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.