An F-35A is outfitted with a spin recovery chute at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., during testing.

An F-35A is outfitted with a spin recovery chute at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., during testing. Photo by Darin Russell/Lockheed Martin

Reform Pentagon Acquisition By Slowing Down the F-35

John McCain and Ash Carter want real acquisition reform? Great, they can start by slowing – or stopping – the F-35.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ashton Carter, the incoming next defense secretary, agree on one thing – the need for acquisition reform at the Pentagon. They should start by looking at the F-35 program.

McCain, in his opening remarks at Carter’s confirmation hearing last week, provided a litany of examples of major programs that had incurred huge cost overruns, from a new aircraft carrier to the F-35 combat aircraft.  His basic message was that if the Pentagon doesn’t change the way it buys weapons, it won’t matter how much money it gets.

Carter, for his part, decried the Pentagon’s penchant for “cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like.”

If Carter and McCain want to initiate a new way of doing business at the Pentagon, the F-35 is the perfect beginning. At nearly $1.5 trillion in lifetime costs, the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. If the program continues on its current course, taxpayers and the military may end up getting an inferior aircraft for this huge investment.

The list of technical problems plaguing the F-35 is daunting. After an engine fire last year the Pentagon grounded the entire fleet. And a recent report by the Pentagon’s top weapons tester has revealed that the version of the plane slated to be used by the Marines, which is scheduled to be cleared for limited combat duty later this year, is deeply flawed. Due to software problems the plane will have difficulty dropping bombs accurately, sharing information with other aircraft, tracking enemy radar or distinguishing friends from foes. Because of all of these problems, the testing office has indicated that it is likely that the F-35 “will finish with deficiencies remaining that will affect operational units.”

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In short, the F-35 is not ready for prime time. 

Production of the plane should not be ramped up until the major technical flaws in the plane’s performance can be fixed. Yet the Pentagon is seeking a big boost in F-35 production in the fiscal 2016 budget, hoping to build 57 aircraft after just 39 this year.

If Carter really wants to undertake serious acquisition reform, he should slow development of the F-35 until these deficiencies are eliminated. Further testing may demonstrate that the F-35 has inherent flaws that have no technical fix. By trying to be the plane to replace all planes, the F-35 may do none of its assigned missions well. It’s hard for variants of the same plane to serve as a bomber, a close air support system, a fighter plane, a naval combat aircraft that can land on an aircraft carrier and a vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. In many cases the F-35 is likely to be inferior to existing aircraft at particular tasks, like close air support for troops on the ground, where the existing A-10 can do a far better job at a fraction of the price.

Advocates of moving full speed ahead with the F-35 program argue that failing to do so will leave a dangerous gap in U.S. air power assets when current generation aircraft like the F-15, F-16 and F-18 have to be retired. But if aircraft currently in the inventory are truly too old to fly, upgraded versions of existing aircraft can be produced to fill any gaps that occur. It will be far cheaper to do so than to throw money at the F-35 when it still has so many technical problems.

The final argument for not scaling back the F-35 program is that it is “too big to fail” – that too much has been invested to turn back now. But so far the Pentagon has only purchased about 220 of the 2,400-plus F-35s it planned to buy, less than 10 percent of the total. If the F-35 isn’t going to work as advertised, stopping or scaling back the program now will prevent the Pentagon from throwing good money after bad. And anything that has been learned in the F-35 program can be applied to the development of a more affordable and effective replacement aircraft. Already, senior Pentagon leaders say for the Pentagon’s next aircraft – the 6th Generation – they want something simpler, anyway. 

Slowing down the F-35 would send a powerful message to industry and the Pentagon’s weapons buying bureaucracy that business as usual is no longer acceptable.  And it would be an excellent first step towards true acquisition reform.