The F-35 Stealth Fighter Is Designed for No One

You can have three planes in one, but it will cost you.

Renewed budget stress in Washington and the looming sequester that proposes fairly drastic cuts to the defense budget (along with everything else) has renewed interest in one of the Pentagon's most embarrassing problems: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is still nowhere near completed, and its cost overruns continue to balloon. Since 2001, the program has almost doubled in cost at close to $400 billion at this point. The bloated jet, which is still being designed as we speak despite production having already started, can't even pass its performance tests, so those tests are being made easier.

All in all, this future jet continues to dig itself a disaster pit that, no matter how many billions are spent on it, will be nearly impossible to climb out of. Why's that? In a bit to cut costs–or, more likely, in a bid to give the appearance of cutting costs–the jet has been designed with three variants in mind for the three branches of the military expecting to use it.

That's not so much of an issue, as pretty much all military planes have custom variants designed for various uses. But rather than modify an existing airframe to a new purpose, all three branches came to the F-35 drawing board with an idea in mind, and designers have had to try to mush those three designs into one cohesive, high-performance plane. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines all have very different ideas of what they need, and having them all fight to get exactly what they want into the same, do-it-all airframe means no one wins.

In a great survey of the program's faults in Time, Mark Thompson summed up the core conundrum of the F-35 in two paragraphs:

Cramming the three services into the program reduced management flexibility and put the taxpayer in a fiscal headlock. Each service had the leverage generated by threatening to back out of the program, which forced cost into the backseat, behind performance. "The Air Force potentially could have adopted the Navy variant, getting significantly more range and structural durability," says John Young Jr., a top Navy and Pentagon civilian official from 2001 to 2009. "But the Air Force leadership refused to consider such options."

Yet if the Navy, and Young, were upset with the Air Force, the Air Force was upset with the Marines. "This is a jobs program for Marine aviation," says retired general Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994. "The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong." He scoffs at the Marine demand for a plane that can land vertically, saying, "The idea of landing on a beach and supporting your troops close up from some improvised airfield, à la Guadalcanal, is not going to happen."

The age-old problem in engineering is that you can make something strong, light, or cheap, but you can only pick two. In this case, designing a plane that is sturdy enough for carrier landings and which has a long range to keep carriers safely out at sea (Navy); which has flexible payload options (Air Force); and which is capable of short takeoff and vertical landings (Marines) is pretty much impossible.

The military has, until now, used a wide range of fighter and fighter-attack planes precisely because you need the right tool for the job. Trying to develop a Swiss Army knife while also making it the best in the world is a task that simply isn't going to happen, at least not without an endless budget and zero deadlines. The end result is a program that's still chugging along with no actual deadline in sight. The question is how long the pet program of defense-minded congressmen (those who count the 144,000 workers employed by the F-35 among their constituents, at least) will continue plodding into the future. With the drone war continuing to scale up at a much cheaper cost, it's an important question to ask.

@derektmead

Topics: Pentagon, F-35, defense, politics

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