Trillions for Warplanes: The Case of the F-35

F-35 Costs: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

My latest article for focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program.  I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program.  Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons?  But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump.  But there’s always money for weapons!  We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.

A Brief History of the F-35 Program

I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed.  The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)

The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.

In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.

Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversyHarper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility.  The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.” 

So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.

These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance.  In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.

Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.)  The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)

As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.

To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission.  It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.

And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers?  Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter?  To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest.  Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.

Read the rest of the article here.

16 thoughts on “Trillions for Warplanes: The Case of the F-35

  1. The F-35 reminds me of the German Tiger 2 or King Tiger Tank. A hugely complicated, expensive tank to produce, which with some imagination on the part of it’s opponents could be destroyed, by smaller tanks, like the T-34 for instance.

    The fact that the F-35 does not function as advertised is not a problem, since our elected officials are so kowtowed (excessively subservient) to the Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex and with blending of Steroid Patriotism want to project dominance.

    So who is this enemy the F-35 is supposed to engage??? I have read various sources that state combat radius of about 590 nautical miles, up to 770 miles. So unless, you parked this aircraft close enough to Russia, or China it would be useless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The King Tiger actually has a much better combat record than the F-35. I think a better comparison would be the Panzer VIII “Maus.” In all seriousness, however, I think the F-35 is supposed to engage goat-herders. Its dismal performance is perfect for dealing with targets too primitive to shoot back. Heaven forbid they actually have to spend money to replace the bloody things. Remember, it’s much more profitable to shuffle money around than to actually make anything.


      1. About those “goat-herders too primitive to shoot back,” see my comment below. See also anything relating to Afghanistan, “The Graveyard of Empires.” Failure to credit middle-eastern goat-herders and Asian rice-farmers with intelligence, persistence, adaptability, and valor in defense of their ancestral homelands can lead to Debacles in Deserts and Bungles in Jungles for which the United States military has become justifiably notorious.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Whether or not I give Middle Easterners any credit is irrelevent – the U.S. military clearly looks at them with complete contempt. Perhaps I should have put that part of my comment in quotes.


          1. I did not take your comments about primitive goat-herders as your own personal views, but as those of the U.S. government and military generally. You made a valid point with which I agreed. In Southeast Asia decades ago we statesmen’s dupes and conqueror’s tools had a whole slew of contemptuous slogans for the South Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians whom our government swore we only killed for their own good and to teach them the value of “democracy.” Mostly stuff the career lifers and Seal Teams liked to repeat for their own amusement. For only a few examples:

            Kill a Commie for Christ.
            Kill a Gook for God.
            Happiness is a High Body Count.
            Kill them all and let God sort it out (from the Albigensian Crusade of the Middle ages).
            Kill anything that moves.
            Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.
            The only good Vietnamese is a dead Vietnamese.
            Don’t knock the war, it’s the only one we’ve got.
            Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

            Not our country’s finest people and not our country’s finest hour. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Not all of us thought, felt, or said these things, but more than a significant number of us did — and still do. As the Tom Cruise character in the movie Jack Reacher explains to a civilian lady lawyer:

            “There are four reasons why people join the military. For some it’s a family business. Others are patriots, eager to serve. Next you have those who just need a job. Then you have those who want a license to kill.”

            I would put Representative Gabbard in the second category and myself in the third (in preference to Conscription, Prison, or Exile). It takes all kinds to make war on others who never did anything to harm our country. Mostly, as George Orwell wrote, the permanent war establishment chiefly uses the U.S. military to loot the economy of its productive resources in order to keep the working class poor and ignorant and therefore unable to recognize and eliminate the useless upper class who rob us blind and feed us culture war fascism as a technique for directing our anger downward at those with even less money and power instead of upwards at those living large off our labor.

            I learned all these ugly things a long time ago. Representative Tulsi Gabbard seems to have learned some of them only in recent years. Still, given her youth and promise, I wish her well in life. It troubles me how she can remain in military service knowing what she now knows about it, but then I see no one else in American political life with even a fraction of her obvious composure and capabilities. I don’t think she looks down on the poor and powerless but feels a genuine concern for their welfare. Politics in most countries would soil the soul of an angel but I think she has what it takes to remain as dirt-resistant as possible. We shall soon see …


  2. As the flames and smoke rise from the Saudi Arabian oil field installations and world oil prices begin to nervously edge upwards, it becomes embarrassingly clear how little value the Saudis have actually obtained from all those hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. weaponry annually purchased over the decades. Not only did such expensive and “advanced” military technology fail to subdue the starving, impoverished people of Yemen — after years of merciless bombing and blockade abetted by U.S. “Intelligence” — but rag-tag Houthi tribesmen have apparently gotten hold of some cheap drones which had no trouble evading U.S. manufactured and supplied “defenses.”


    Now, about those rather exposed U.S. Navy installations in Bahrain and Very Large Target aircraft carriers should they actually come within range of relatively inexpensive drones or anti-ship missiles. Not to worry, for this latest humiliating FUBAR and SNAFU only “looks” like yet another defeat for the brain-addled Lunatic Leviathan. In reality, as the transnational corporate oligarchy knows only too well, what appears to poor and uneducated Americans as a “defeat” in fact constitutes:

    A Dreadful Success
    (with thanks to Michael Parenti for the accurate terminology)

    In two-thousand-nine, he got rolled right away
    Another new President easy to sway.
    Without thinking much or too long or too deep
    He fell for the generals’ choice: mission-creep.

    He had many “options” from which he could choose
    Which all added up to just one: Do not “lose,”
    Which they’d say he did if he wisely withdrew
    So he caved in with only one turn of the screw.

    Except that the screwing, once started, goes on
    From morning till sundown; from dusk until dawn,
    For days, weeks, and months stretching into long years
    Then two terms speed past bathed in blood, sweat, and tears.

    And now a successor Commander-in-Brief
    (A waste of good skin and an oxygen thief)
    Gets his turn to fold at the start of the game
    Letting “experts at war” sell him more of the same,

    Who haven’t a clue after seventeen years
    Except that the budget once more disappears,
    With none to account for where everything went
    While the world stands outside pissing into the tent.

    It ought to have dawned on someone before now
    That thieves know their business: the when, where, and how
    Of letting the brass have a taste of the cake
    Then calling their lost wars a “tragic mistake.”

    But profits piled up for a fabulous few
    While everyone else gets to dine on shit stew
    Looks nothing at all, to the rich, like a mess
    But, rather, a well-thought-out, class-war success.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2019


  3. “I will have no man in my boat,” said Starbuck, “who is not afraid of a whale.” By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward. — Herman Melville, Moby Dick

    Listening to President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo foam at the mouth in their eagerness to look all-tough-and-stuff while justifying a long-desired attack on Iran after some Houthi tribesmen from Yemen just offered an inexpensive hint at what monstrous blowback might ensue from such reckless “courage,” I thought of First Mate Starbuck and his sensible view of going carefully out onto the ocean deeps fully cognizant of the dangers one should expect from hunting a sea monster in a flimsy little whaleboat. Then I thought of my own six years in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club which eventually found me literally “up a creek without a paddle,” deposited by my own government on the muddy defoliated banks of a salt water river two kilometers from the southernmost tip of South Vietnam, as close to the asshole of the universe as a vindictive former commanding officer could send me for impudently growing some hair on my upper lip and chin. Hence my lifelong disdain for Presidential “commanders in brief,” their ticket-punching “joined chefs of stuff,” and the U.S. military’s various “chains of command.” Hence my own undistinguished memoir of life in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent (Vietnam 1970-72):

    Morbid Dick

    “Hide behind the troops.”
    “Wave the bloody shirt.”
    Lay them down in groups,
    Dead beneath the dirt.

    Out upon the sea,
    Vast uncaring waves.
    Officers and me:
    Prisoner of slaves.

    Going where we’re sent.
    Doing what we’re told.
    Never to repent.
    Nothing quite so bold.

    Sailors spending cash
    That they haven’t got.
    Paid by rum and lash,
    “Three hots and a cot.”

    Someone getting rich.
    Ain’t those swabbing decks.
    Nothing but to bitch,
    Chipping paint in flecks.

    If it moves, salute;
    If it doesn’t, paint.
    Nothing too astute.
    No life for the saint.

    Vows of Poverty;
    Then, Obedience;
    And Unchastity.
    All subservience.

    One-word lexicon,
    Filthy and profane.
    Sunrise until dawn,
    Useful. Terse. Germane.

    Channel Fever now,
    Ashes in their urns,
    Homeward speeds the scow.
    Morbid Dick returns.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2018


  4. In addition to ripping off generations of U.S.taxpayers for boondoggle weapons systems that chiefly serve to stuff wads of cash into private stockholder pockets, the U.S. government regularly pimps out our military service personnel to install and maintain corrupt foreign oligarchs in money and power, like, for only two examples, the “Saigon” and “Kabul” puppet “governments” and their dispirited armed farces who have no desire to fight and die for foreign invaders like the U.S. I have had some experience in these matters dating back to the late 1960s and early 1970s serving in the Nixon-Kissinger Fig Leaf Contingent propping up the now-defunct “Republic of South Vietnam.” So, I found it particularly gratifying to hear of Tulsi Gabbard giving the current President of the United States some well deserved shit for publicly promising to send our military forces against whomever Saudi Arabia claims bombed their oil producing installations recently, even though the U.S. and Saudi Arabia already bomb the Houthis of Yemen and have for years. About time somebody called “bullshit” on this abuse of our military service personnel, impoverished foreigners, and taxpayers generally.

    See: ‘We are not your prostitutes!’ Tulsi Gabbard slams Trump for ‘pimping out’ US soldiers to Saudi Arabia , (September 17, 2019)

    While I applaud Representative Gabbard for her forthright and unsparing language, I think it only fair to remind her and other Americans serving in the U.S. Armed Forces that this sort of practice long precedes the likes of the buffoon Donald Trump. In fact, I wrote up a verse commentary on just such a practice eleven years ago in:

    Pimpin’ with the Prezident

    It ain’t so hard to be a pimp
    Just ask George Bush, the wailin’ wimp

    He’ll eat your hamburger today
    Then Tuesday promise to repay

    On Monday, though, he plans to skip
    And leave your kids with bill and tip

    He’s pimped the troops out walkin’ beats
    In Baghdad’s mean and lethal streets

    While he stays safe at home in bed
    A nightlight shinin’ by his head

    He flies into Iraq at night
    Then splits before the mornin’ light

    He takes some promo picture groups
    Him feedin’ turkey to the troops

    Another ersatz plastic bird:
    A photo of a smilin’ turd

    In his big plane he flies around
    While troops get hammered on the ground

    He pimps out both the girls and boys
    To bring in money for his joys

    Too bad his need to be reborn
    Too good the war bucks kiddie porn

    The fanboy fascists jerkin’ off
    Would never think to bitch or scoff

    It ain’t their sisters takin’ slap
    It ain’t their brothers catchin’ clap

    They loved that tale of Monica
    Why do they hate America?

    It ain’t so hard to be a pimp
    Just ask George Bush, the smirkin’ chimp

    He learned about the crime that pays
    In voodoo Reaganomics days

    With Laffer drawin’ fancy curves
    On napkins that the waitress serves

    Old Ron and Dick and Don saw quick
    That deficits would do the trick

    Just rob the future; hide the stash
    Then cover up by talkin’ trash

    The sacred military scam
    Would kill the ghost of’ Vietnam

    “Let’s coin an urban myth,” they thought
    “To unlearn all the lessons taught”

    “We’ll say they had it ‘won’ for naught,
    We expert ones who never fought”

    “Their deaths and maimings we can choose
    To call a ‘syndrome’ — we can’t lose!”

    “Americans are so damn thick
    They think of wise as somethin’ sick”

    But, anyway, this pimpin’ pays
    You cannot even count the ways

    This pimpin’, George the Shrub thought fine
    As long as he could jump the line

    Let better men go off to die
    He’d get ahead and learn to fly

    He got his picture took in planes
    Then disappeared to make some gains

    But now, though, he gets custom threads
    And public funding for his meds

    “It troubles me,” he sometimes blurts
    When he gets wind of how war hurts

    “It must be like that ‘poverty’
    That mom made sure I’d never see”

    Like most stud hampsters, don’t you know?
    He swaggers like they’re hangin’ low

    With Haliburton writin’ checks
    Dick don’t care how much world George wrecks

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2006

    Representative Gabbard exhibits a good deal of wisdom and courage for someone so young. No wonder the DNC has seen fit to exclude her from these farcical excuses for “debates.” That $25 I donated to her campaign seems like money very well spent indeed.


    1. Thanks for the Tulsi link, Mike. She nailed it.

      I had a similar reaction to Trump’s tweet. He ceded his freedom of action to the House of Saud. Talk about a lapdog! What did they do to him when he touched that orb?


    2. But the American military seems to like Trump and everything he does. And they also seem to like their generals.
      This bunch here have been campaigning for Trump on behalf of the military since 2015:
      They had tens of propaganda channels on the Disqus portal for years before Disqus closed them down and hundreds of accounts saying they are active military or intelligence personnel, or retired same. They were all rah rah for Trump and the military, very brutal toward any dissenting voice, though a little toned down now.
      I didn’t even know it was legal for military and intelligence personnel to campaign for the President.


      1. I just found this article here which says that Russian operatives and military hackers are trying to befriend American military personnel and veterans, sometimes posing as attractive women. It’s a great investigation.
        What if these people posing as American military and intelligence are in fact Russian spies ? Their former channels were friendly toward Russia and they post very subtle propaganda.
        It’s unbelievable that nobody investigates. And when they do they pretend not to find anything..


  5. “Justification and the High Cost of Freedom”

    If I had an office and a big chair in The Pentagon and got called before a Congressional committee hearing on a new military budget, here’s what I’d say:
    “We control our skies, command the seas, and have never been invaded. So, tell me, Senator: what have the poor ever done for you?”

    For all the incredible costs and decades-spanning testing & tweaking of the F-35, does anyone have any idea who it is to be deployed against? What have those “enemies” – which I guess these days could mean anyone except Russia, North Korea, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – been doing all the years that the F-35 has been something less than a reality? And I have to say, I don’t even like the look of the thing. Give me an F-14 or F-15 any day.

    I can’t help but think this will eventually be not all that different from our stash of Cold War ICBMs: “Sure they were expensive, and thank God we never had to use them, but didn’t you sleep better knowing we did have them?”
    In 5 years, no one will remember this particular boondoggle.
    “It’s the cost of freedom.”
    Oh. Okay. That’s fine.
    As with interstellar distances, the cost of a program like the F-35 is almost beyond comprehension, making it all the easier to ignore.


  6. Trillions for Warplanes. The cost of a pizza for an I.E.D.

    “The IED — which can be built for about the cost of a pizza — brought the American victory express [in Iraq] to a crashing halt. As the insurgent weapon of choice, it denied U.S. forces the decisive outcome thought to have been gained by the fall of Saddam Hussein. Having gotten in quickly enough, the Americans fond that they couldn’t get out. Liberation gave way to occupation. Speed was no longer a war winner. Persistent presence became the new imperative.” — Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism (2008)

    Hideously overpriced and underperforming American weaponry will not determine the outcome of any conflict that the U.S. initiates against ostensibly defenceless adversaries, unless one factors in national bankruptcy as the ultimate cause of America’s current and projected defeats.


    1. With all these ultra-expensive weapons, Mike, perhaps we’re slowly disarming ourselves, since we can afford fewer and fewer of them.

      Give peace a chance!


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