By Chris Nagavonski, TES Contributor
The Department of Defense is still scrambling to address potentially-crippling flaws in the Lockheed Martin F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet, even as the number of aircraft produced for the United States and allied nations approaches 600. While the program drags on, the Air Force is already designing and testing a sixth-generation successor to eventually replace the F-35. If there’s any hope for this new project to succeed, the DoD needs to internalize some key lessons from the much-maligned F-35 program.
Right now, the Air Force, Navy, and Marines field a small number of F-35s and a larger fleet of excellent but aging fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16. As these legacy aircraft reach the end of their service life, the US military will need to replace them with an advanced fighter that won’t require constant re-designs and fixes. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with two bloated fighter programs that fail to deliver the long-term advantage our country needs.
Let’s start with the development and fielding process. Lawmakers and the Pentagon need to make it clear to the new aircraft’s manufacturer that delays and cost overruns will not be tolerated. The first F-35 prototype had its initial flight in 2006, but the fighter only entered initial operating capability (IOC) in 2015 – which doesn’t necessarily mean that the aircraft is ready to deploy in combat. In the meantime, our competitors were catching up. The Russian Su-57 fifth-generation fighter first flew in 2010 and conducted limited combat trials over Syria in 2018; the Chinese J-20 had its first flight in 2011 and reportedly reached IOC in 2017.
The program isn’t just years behind schedule: the Pentagon anticipates that the F-35 program will cost $22 billion more than originally expected throughout its lifetime. Costly re-designs and upgrades are partly to blame, but too many issues came down to simple incompetence and corruption. Lost and defective parts resulted in extra labor costs of $300 million. Inspectors found another $500,000 worth of parts in rain-soaked cardboard boxes sitting in pools of water at Edwards Air Force Base. Lockheed Martin offices spent F-35 program funds on flat-screen TVs, printers, and golf carts. Officials have admitted that they may not be properly tracking at least $18 billion worth of F-35 program property. American taxpayers should be grabbing torches and pitchforks over this. There need to be serious consequences for mismanagement to earn the public’s trust in the next fighter program.
While this irresponsible behavior continues, the F-35 remains unfinished. Five years after entering service, it still has nearly 900 design flaws. Of these, more than half are “in dispute,” meaning that Lockheed Martin won’t address them unless the government pays for the fixes. 273 more have solutions but require further funding or testing, and 162 have no solution planned at all. Some of these flaws are potentially-fatal: pressure spikes inside the cockpit have given pilots severe ear trauma; glitches in the helmet-mounted display and night vision camera make it harder for pilots to see; high speeds and maneuvers that are supposed to be within the aircraft’s capability result in structural damage. Congress and the Pentagon must act early to set strict standards for the next fighter program and prevent another debacle.
Many of the F-35 program’s issues were baked in from the beginning: it was overly-ambitious, suffered from requirement creep, and attempted to start production before addressing major defects. Others come from a deliberate – or at least incredibly-irresponsible – decision to distribute manufacturing across more than 1,500 suppliers in the US and partner nations, which critics say made the program too big to cancel. Lawmakers have also exploited the program for political gain: right now, Congress wants to fund even more aircraft than the DoD has requested. Officially, this is supposed to speed up production, but it also benefits districts in 44 states where F-35 contractors are located. This politically-motivated spending spree needs to end, and the American people deserve to know that the next fighter program won’t suffer from opportunism and short-sighted thinking.
The United States can’t afford another disaster like the F-35 program. It has caused tension with our allies and invited ridicule from our competitors. The top priority for the Next Generation Air Dominance program must be to learn the mistakes of the past two decades. American taxpayers and service-members deserve no less.
Chris Nagavonski is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C. who specializes in Eastern European affairs.