The F-35 Fighter: Not Invisible to Trump’s Radar

a-10-thunderbolt-ii_001
You can hang a lot more weaponry from an A-10 Warthog (vintage 1970s) than you can from a modern F-35

W.J. Astore

Is Donald Trump putting coal in Lockheed Martin’s Christmas stocking?

Trump has sent another tweet about the F-35 jet fighter (Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor), this time asking Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet as a possible replacement for that jet.  Trump’s tweet caused Lockheed Martin shares to dive even as Boeing shares climbed.

Trump is right to pressure Lockheed Martin on the F-35, though I’m not sure tweets are the best way to do this.  I remember planning for the F-35 twenty years ago when I was on active duty in the Air Force.  The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be a relatively low cost fighter/attack aircraft that would meet Air Force, Navy, and Marine needs.  Back then, the flyaway cost was estimated at $40 million per plane, more expensive than the F-16 but roughly equivalent to the F-15E “Strike Eagle.”  The current flyaway cost is roughly $200 million per plane,* and even higher for the Marine Corps version with its vertical landing/short takeoff capacity.

f-35
The F-35: Stealthy but expensive, with a long history of cost overruns

What happened?  Everything went wrong as each service piled requirements onto the F-35 and all kinds of exotic features were added to it.  Stealth capability.  Loads of special software featuring millions of lines of code.  Unique (and expensive) helmets for its pilots. Vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which drove an airframe configuration that made it less maneuverable for the Air Force.  In short, the F-35 became like a Swiss army knife, featuring lots of tools and moving parts.  Sure, in a pinch a Swiss army knife can be used as a screwdriver or what have you, but most of the time what you really need is the best screwdriver for the job.

The F-35 is reminiscent of another ill-fated effort to build a jet acceptable to all the services: the F-111 “swing-wing” program of the 1960s.

f111
Big and ungainly, the F-111 was mainly used as a bomber and electronics warfare plane

The Navy never deployed it, and the Air Force was never that happy with it, converting it to a fighter/bomber and an electronics warfare plane.  The Navy went on to build its own fighter jet, the F-14, even as the Air Force built its fighter jet, the F-15.  Then the Air Force and Navy got two decent fighter/attack jets, the F-16 and F-18, out of the lightweight fighter competition.**

Here’s the thing: Although jets like the F-15 and F-18 are not stealthy, they are very effective, especially when updated with the latest weaponry and avionics and flown by skilled pilots.  Meanwhile, highly effective UAVs (drones) have emerged, e.g. Predators and Reapers, with long loiter times and no risk of U.S. casualties.  To put it bluntly, does the U.S. really need the F-35, especially given its high cost and underwhelming performance?

Back to Donald Trump.  Is he bluffing when he threatens to buy Boeing-made F-18s instead of the F-35?  Is he posturing to get Lockheed Martin to cut the price of the F-35 (which, at this late stage of its development, may not even be possible)?  One thing is certain: A lot of good American jobs are riding on Trump’s tweets.  Expect Lockheed Martin to rally its Congressional allies to defend the program.  The plane’s multitude of contracts were deliberately spread throughout the 50 states to gain as much Congressional support as possible.

For a little fun, go to the Lockheed Martin website at the following link:

https://www.f35.com/about/economic-impact-map

Let’s put in Pennsylvania.  Here’s what you get: 41 supplier locations, 2100 jobs, $172.5M in economic impact.  How about New York?  77 suppliers, 8160 jobs, $695.2M in economic impact.  How about Bernie Sanders’s state of Vermont?  3 suppliers, 1410 jobs, $124.5 million in economic impact.  Small wonder that even Bernie Sanders during the campaign was an F-35 supporter.

One thing is certain: the stealthy F-35 has not evaded Trump’s radar.  Whether Trump will shoot it down or simply watch it as it soars on by while burning through piles of money remains to be seen.

Note: For a more detailed report on the F-35’s performance issues, see “The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat: Testing report contradicts the U.S. Air Force’s rosy pronouncements,” by DAN GRAZIER & MANDY SMITHBERGER, available at this link. In short, the plane’s “requirement” to be stealthy is driving higher costs and lower performance. The plane gobbles gas so it has limited combat endurance. It’s a step backwards in effectiveness, at a much higher cost to the American taxpayer than previous planes such as the F-15, F-16, and A-10.  Meanwhile, many of its missions are now filled by drones.

For a counterpoint in favor of the F-35, see this link.  The F-35 has unique capabilities; it should, given its price tag.  Leaving aside high cost and questionable performance, it’s vital to remember the mission.  Are there really missions that only the F-35 can do, or that no plane can do as effectively?  But the real case for the F-35 seems to come down to the fact that the program is simply too big to fail; the “sunk costs” are too high; its rivals are too old; and too many American jobs are dependent on it.  In short, the U.S. military is stuck with the plane — and the American taxpayer is stuck with the bill.

*Estimates vary about the final flyaway cost since it’s ultimately dependent on how many F-35s are produced.  Current estimates for the entire U.S. purchase are $400 billion, with another trillion dollars for maintenance and spares and related costs over the program’s lifetime.

**The most rugged and effective attack jet in the Air Force’s inventory, the A-10, was never much liked by the Air Force; generals have fought to eliminate it in favor of the much less effective F-35, but Congress has actually fought back to keep the A-10, affectionately known as the Warthog, a name and image contrary to the AF fighter pilot mystique of “eagles” and “fighting falcons.”

8 thoughts on “The F-35 Fighter: Not Invisible to Trump’s Radar

  1. once had a Marine F-35 pilot present to our vets group and he did a great job….when I asked a cost question about the need for a Marine and Navy version, he acknowledged that if they had to they could have just one version for both branches….is it time to go fully joint command structure and reduce redundancy??

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    1. As I understand it, the Navy version is modified for carrier service, and the Marine version has the Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing capability, since the Marines envision it being used from rugged or primitive airstrips. Different requirements drive different versions.

      The Air Force version seems to be the cheapest since it doesn’t need to be quite as rugged as the Navy’s nor does it need the Marines’ V/STOL technology.

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  2. How does a new jet aircraft fit in with the Marine Corps’ present mission of protecting poppy fields in Afghanistan so that boy-buggering Afghan warlords can produce more heroin for American users who then find themselves thrown into private prisons working for twenty dollars a day so that they can buy their own prison clothes from the privatized prison store? How does a new jet aircraft — or any aircraft for that matter — fit in with this core mission? Semper Fi, indeed. Never leave a dollar on the “battlefield.” And “always faithful” to the One Percent’s money. As Marine Corps General Smedley Butler wrote in War is a Racket:

    “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”

    Now, if Al Capone didn’t need a new jet aircraft and if General Smedley Butler didn’t need a new jet aircraft, then why do America’s current Gangsters for Capitalism, a.k.a., the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps (including sometimes the various state militias and Coast Guard) need a new jet aircraft? Can’t they destroy, kill, loot, and garrison third-world countries with the jet aircraft they already have? I mean, most of their barely armed third-world adversaries (to whom they keep losing) don’t have any aircraft at all, only “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) that one can construct for the price of a pizza. Doesn’t The U.S. military’s half-century and more of epic military failure begin to suggest that the side that always loses — namely, us — has the most and newest and most expensive airplanes? So the U.S. military needs more and newer and more expensive jet aircraft to do precisely what? Lose even more and faster?

    Or, as I suspect we all suspect by now: Does the U.S. military really need all these types of useless, redundant make-work boondoggles just so that their masters, the Ruling Corporate Oligarchy, can loot and impoverish the working-class American taxpayer? Can’t leave any of the One Percent’s entitlement dollars laying around on the Home Front Battlefield, now can we? One might even construe such a preposterous notion as … uh … well … uh … “unfaithful” — to the Ruling Corporate Oligarchy.

    The new F-35 may not have the capability of hitting any useful enemy targets in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Somalia — just to offer a few obvious examples of U.S. military futility — but it can certainly hit the U.S. working-class taxpayer. If President-elect Donald Trump had any real business sense at all, he would demobilze half of the U.S. military, just for starters, and would continue the downsizing until someone at the Pentagram finds an accountant who can perform an audit. Otherwise, we Americans will find ourselves forever repeating — with a slight paraphrase — an old television toothpaste ad from 1948:

    “You’ll wonder where your money went
    If you give it to your government.”

    As the career military lifers used to say in Vietnam: “Don’t knock the war, it’s the only one we’ve got.” The career U.S. military — especially the upper ranks of the officer caste — only needs one war: the one that never ends. The politically connected U.S. military brass appears to have gotten that “Long” war now and shows no sign of ever letting go of the national purse strings necessary to feed its insatiable appetite for more, more, more, more, more … of everything needed to keep losing. So, yes, bring on even more new and unnecceasry jet aircraft to bankrupt the nation. I can’t think of a better way to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mike: Do we get involved in winning the war in Vietnam in the 1960s if we didn’t have all our air forces?

      The U.S. military clearly saw it as the winning edge. The Air Force with all its bombing; the Navy with carrier aviation; the Army with all its helicopters (Air Cav!). How could those pajama-clad “gooks” resist the awesome might of U.S. airpower? Of course, they did resist, despite all the bombing and strafing and napalming and defoliants.

      The U.S. has invested an enormous amount of money in airpower, yet it hasn’t proven to be decisive in winning wars. Indeed, in making Americans cocky about the prospects of success, it has embroiled us in quagmires, whether in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan.

      Being able to project power across the globe and rain death from the skies creates an illusion of mastery that has bedeviled this country since the end of World War II. If we had no (or small) air forces, we couldn’t sustain our military presence in faraway places — and wouldn’t that be a good thing?

      Liked by 1 person

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