The U.S. spends more on its military every year than the next five developed nations combined. One idea behind that massive expenditure is that you’re always two steps ahead of everyone else then they’ll always hesitate to pick a real fight with you. Unfortunately, that can also mean a lot of money gets wasted on terrible ideas that don’t go anywhere or on ideas that shouldn’t go anywhere but do anyway.
“It’s inherently a terrible airplane because it’s an airplane built for a dumb idea. As soon as you go to design a multi-mission airplane, you’re sunk.” –Pierre Sprey
Enter the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the Lightning II. It’s been in development since 2003, has cost 1 trillion dollars to produce and, in June, one of the jets suffered an engine fire. This after the development of the warplane has been dogged by glitches, malfunctions, and redesigns but now declared ready. The F-35 is the most expensive warplane ever produced and questions about basic reliability (it’s been grounded 13 times since 2007) should not be present at this stage of the game.
David Axe of Reuters brings the basic problem right into focus.
But there’s real reason to worry. The June incident might reflect serious design flaws that could render the F-35 unsuitable for combat.
For starters, the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 — which can avoid sensor detection thanks to its special shape and coating — simply doesn’t work very well. The Pentagon has had to temporarily ground F-35s no fewer than 13 times since 2007, mostly due to problems with the plane’s Pratt & Whitney-made F135 engine, in particular, with the engines’ turbine blades. The stand-downs lasted at most a few weeks.
“The repeated problems with the same part of the engine may be indications of a serious design and structural problem with the F135 engine,” said Johan Boeder, a Dutch aerospace expert and editor of the online publication JSF News.
That last bit from Johan Boeder is important. Because of the F-35’s massive cost, the U.S. is trying to get lots of buy in from our allies to use them. With the U.S. on the hook to purchase 2,400 of them at a combined cost of 400 billion dollars, getting more planes on the assembly line for nations like the U.K. and Canada would mean that the cost per plane for the U.S. would be lower. But problem riddled jet that doesn’t do anything very well is a terrible selling point and if no planes get sold then the cost stays high.
Here’s a list of problems with the plane found as late as this year:
- Only a third of the fleet is airworthy.
- The Inertial navigation system does not work.
- There is an unknown bug with the AMRAAM.
- DAS confuses the aircraft’s own flare launches with incoming missiles.
- A single well-placed bullet can render the F-35B’s vertical landing capabilities useless
Confuses its own flares with incoming missiles? What?! Glitches can be fixed and minor problems can be mitigated but if the flaws are structural and design problems then the basic question about whether this plane can win in a fight comes into play and, unfortunately, that’s a very real concern.
In 2008, two analysts at the RAND Corporation, a California think-tank that works closely with the military, programmed a computer simulation to test out the F-35′s fighting ability in a hypothetical air war with China. The results were startling.
“The F-35 is double-inferior,” John Stillion and Harold Scott Perdue concluded in their written summary of the war game, later leaked to the press. The new plane “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,” they warned.
The entire fiasco raises basic questions about military spending but it raises one question that I believe is even more fundamental. If the U.S. has reached the point where we are so superior militarily to our competition that we can essentially flush a 1 trillion dollars down the toilet then do we even need a newly designed warplane or do we need improvements in the design of niche aircraft that are purpose designed. Why spend all this money just to show off when for the same cost we could have bought every homeless person in the U.S. a 600,000 dollar mansion or invested in basic infrastructure projects that would have employed far more people than the F-35 project ever has?
“The new plane ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,’ they warned.”
You’re probably wondering right now why these questions haven’t already been asked. Sadly, they have, but the reply from Senators and House members has often been a deafingly jingoistic accusation of being anti-American or of not caring about the jobs the F-35 has produced. This was also the case with the now cancelled F-22 Raptor platform, the production of which was finally cancelled because of cost overruns.
We should do the same with the F-35, go back to the drawing board, and focus on military aircraft that do the job they’re supposed to do with the technology that’s available, not try to make a super plane that does poorly what its forbears did well.
Projects like this are why a growing number of people hate government.