About the F35

THE LOCKHEED MARTIN F-35 LIGHTNING II

Despite its moniker and the fact that it is the most expensive weapon ever built, the F-35 Lightning II cannot fly near lightning. This constraint, however, is just one of the F-35’s many shortfalls. As Adam Ciralksy wrote in Vanity Fair, the F-35 “is at least seven years behind schedule and plagued by a risky development strategy, shoddy management, laissez-faire oversight, countless design flaws, and skyrocketing costs.”

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Yet despite the fact that the F-35 might wind up busting the Pentagon budget, the Pentagon still aims to replace four distinct, aging models of “fourth generation” jets with 289 standardized “fifth generation” jets.

Three versions of this joint strike fighter are being built: the F-35A for the conventional needs of the air force; the F-35B with short-takeoff and vertical landing capabilities for the Marines; and the F-35C designed for takeoffs and landings on navy aircraft carriers. However, the United States Armed Forces are not the only parties looking to acquire the F-35. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the United Kingdom have also placed orders for the faulty aircraft. The F-35’s undeserving popularity raises several key questions.

Who is making a profit from it?

Lockheed Martin and other Pentagon contractors (namely, Northrup Grunman, BAE Systems, and United Technologies) drove up the price of the F-35 through a cycle of cronyism, political leveraging, and exoneration from the design’s systemic failures. In particular, Lockheed Martin is assembling the F-35 using two practices cited as driving up costs:

  • Concurrency: designing, testing and producing the plane all at the same time, instead of fixing defects before production begins.
  • Commonality: all three variants were meant to share 70% of their components, which were supposed to keep costs down. The current figure is now down to 25%. This process also means that when defects are discovered in one of the models, the entire fleet of F-35s has to be grounded and fixed.

Moreover, these same contractors have benefited from the prolonged length of the project. The Pentagon released its initial bid in 1996—but 18 years later, the F-35 is still not combat-ready. In comparison, it only took 8 years to design, build, test, qualify, and deploy a fully functional squadron of previous-generation F-16s.

What does the Pentagon have to say?

The Pentagon counterargument to this is that the F-35 has completely revolutionary capabilities that the F-16 does not. This includes a helmet that provides "unprecedented" situational awareness. But this argument does not work (and neither does the helmet). According to David Axe,

It doesn’t really matter how smoothly Lockheed and the government’s work on the new warplane proceeds. Even the best-manufactured JSF is a second-rate fighter where it actually matters — in the air, in life-or-death combat against a determined foe. And that could mean a death sentence for American pilots required to fly the vulnerable F-35.

Why is there no real Congressional oversight?

According to Scott Beauchamp,

The answer lies with Lockheed Martin’s suave contracting strategy. What the company has done is incorporate subcontractors all over America (across forty-five states, in fact) into the process of manufacturing the F-35, keeping Congress more invested in funneling tax payer dollars to certain favored constituents than in offering said taxpayers a functioning plane. As former Pentagon acquisitions official Thomas Christie told Foreign Policy earlier this month, “An upfront question with any program is: How many congressional districts is it in?”

For more critical analysis, see William Hartung's report that raises questions about the assertions about jobs created by the F35 production and analyzes the politics of Lockheed Martin's strategy of spreading work across as many Congressional districts as is possible, coupled with $11.1 million dollars worth of campaign contributions in just the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 election cycles.

Why weren’t procurement problems discovered earlier?

A long-standing problem with defense and security contracting is that the relationships between companies and procurement officers are often too cozy. The F35 process provides a strong example. Ashton Carter, President Obama’s pick for next Secretary of Defense, related this story from his time as Deputy Secretary of Defense (2011- 2013):

“I want to see the bill, everything that goes into the cost of this airplane,” Carter said, in a video of his remarks posted on YouTube on May 22. “The program office didn't know, could not tell me where the money was going.”

At that time, the F-35's development was being executed under a cost-plus contract, a vehicle that allows a contractor to pass costs on to the government in addition to seeking an award fee. “I asked the program manager: ‘Let me see your award fee history.’ I look at the award fee history over 10 years, it is 85 percent a year,” Carter said.

The former deputy defense secretary said he told the program manager the F-35 program was “a disaster,” adding, “You're giving an 85 percent award fee every year, what's going on?”

“And,” Carter continued, “he looked me in the eye . . . and said: ‘I like the program manager on the Lockheed Martin side that I work with and he tells me that if he gets less than 85 percent award fee, he's going to get fired.’”

What is being done to stop the F-35?

Several campaigns against the F-35 have been launched. Stop the F35: Protect Vermont, for instance, opposes “the basing of F-35 war planes at the Burlington Airport. Stopping the basing will be a significant step toward canceling the whole unnecessary F-35 program.” F35 is a Bad Deal seeks to “build support at the grassroots to pressure our lawmakers to rethink their commitment to this costly weapons program” while The American Friends Service Committee is working to counter the “the ‘poster child’ of Pentagon waste.”

The F35 is an egregious example of military waste, but it is not an isolated case. At the World Peace Foundation, we are launching a new research and outreach initiative on corruption and the global arms industry.