USAF's F-35 problem: How the Air Force's high-tech hope for the future became its $428 billion Albatross

USAF's F-35 problem: How the Air Force's high-tech hope for the future became its $428 billion Albatross
F-35 (Getty Images)

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently asked the Congress to reduce the Pentagon’s budget and shift funds for "domestic renewal" and foreign policy, asserting that expensive weapons systems used in the Cold War era and war on terror are no more necessary.

Clinton, who served in the Barack Obama administration, penned a lengthy piece in Foreign Affairs magazine in which she gave her vision for restructuring America’s defense spending and accused the current Donald Trump administration of mismanagement. The 72-year-old said in her piece that in the current times, the competition is not about traditional global military contest of force and firepower.

Clinton stressed on slashing funding for some of the US military’s most expensive weapons systems and sought a “broader approach” that would also combat threats from not just missiles but also from cyberattacks, online propaganda, viruses, etc. She said the US’s weapons systems are not suitable for a military confrontation with China which, according to her, developed “asymmetric” capabilities that could easily throw a challenge to arms that are technically advanced.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (Getty Images)

Economic, political reasons that hinder military reforms

Taking a dig at America’s vulnerability against a “new kind of asymmetric threat”, Clinton wrote about the “profound economic and political implications” when it comes to military posturing and procurement. She pointed out jobs in the defense sector that support several people and communities and why the economic reason often makes it hard to retire ageing weapons systems or shut bases that have gone past their utilities.

Clinton also spoke about the political challenges that one faces while trying to bring reforms in the military. “I saw how hard it can be to move a bureaucracy as sprawling as the Pentagon when, in 2004, I was asked to be the only U.S. senator on the Joint Forces Command’s Transformation Advisory Group, which was charged with helping the military re-imagine itself for the twenty-first century. The Defense Department had assembled an impressive team of military and civilian experts from a range of disciplines and told them to think as big and boldly as possible, yet our efforts to recommend reforms ran into some of the same obstacles that remain today,” she said, adding that players like Pengaton, Congress and the private sector have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The case of F-35 fighter jet

Clinton then brought up the case of the F-35 fighter jet. She said development of the military plane was way behind its time and budget (estimated to cost over $1 trillion over its lifespan) but yet it features in the military’s scheme of things. “The air force sank so much time and money into the project that turning back became unthinkable, especially since the F-35 is the only fifth-generation aircraft currently being manufactured in the United States. And because the plane directly and indirectly supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across hundreds of congressional districts in nearly every state, it has legions of defenders in Congress,” she wrote.

The veteran opined that the air force needs to focus less on short-range tactical fighter jets and more on long-haul capacities. She said instead of building as many F-35s as planned, the air force should rely on the B-21 Raider -- an under-development long-range bomber that can thwart advanced air defenses. But Clinton’s prescription could still look difficult to execute in reality. The experts’ opinion over the utility of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is deeply divided. On one hand, there are people who think that the aircraft is a right one for the air force, despite the occasional technical issues that it faces. This school believes the criticism of the plane is unjust, biased, ill-informed and even based on misrepresentation of the platform’s costs and capacities.

However, those against the jet consider it to be an example of a failed acquisition program that only signifies its inherent incompetence and the corruption prevalent in the establishment allegedly featuring rich contractors who are financial pillars of the Congressmen. The critics of the plane say that it is not only over budget and behind schedule but also has several technological shortcomings.

The debate is balanced so far. According to a piece penned in The National Interest by Research Professor Adam Lowther and air force member Chris Wrenn in 2014, it will not be right to suggest that the entire program should be cancelled because of the alleged reasons is not a right conclusion. “As Peter Grier has deftly noted, these same challenges were true for the F-15, AWACS, and C-17 programs as well. Every one of these programs was significantly over budget, far behind schedule and suffered a variety of technical challenges that critics thought were too difficult to overcome,” they said in the piece.

While arguments have been pushed on behalf of both sides, for and against the plane, the critics perhaps score a point over their opponents over the fact that the F-35 might not be the right option for the air force when it comes to a potential conflict in the Asia-Pacific. Col Michael W Pietrucha wrote in 2014 an article in Air & Space Power Journal in which he highlighted some of the relative shortcomings the JSF has as a tactical fighter and which could play a big role in case there was a conflict in the Asia-Pacific.

Is F-35 US Air Force’s Albatross?

Is the fighter then the US Air Force’s Albatross in the strategic Asia-Pacific region which is likely to emerge into a major theatre of the power struggle between the US and China? There are some reasons for the experts to arrive at such a conclusion. First of all, the jet lacks enough range to be relevant in a fight in that region, especially in cases where basing within the first island chain becomes vulnerable. Secondly, the plane’s jamming capacity may prove to be inadequate if there is no big additional investment. Moreover, with powers like China and Russia making fast progress in their radar technology, the F-35’s stealth capacity could become seriously restricted, reducing its effectiveness.

In the Asia-Pacific, one of the major determinants of combat missions is the “tyranny of distance”. The F-35’s combat mission radius is considered to be 584 nautical miles, which is 200 miles less than the F-15E. Such short legs could create a disadvantage because of the distances between the first and second island chains and the anticipated zones of the operation. Lowther and Wrenn, however, said in that article that despite the critics calling the F-35 program worth $428 billion an Albatross, there are ways to improve it. They recommended, for instance, cost reduction through high-rate production. They said the plane’s high cost in the early production stage is mainly because of the purchase of a small number of aircraft. The F-16, on the other hand, saw a high-rate production from the very start despite its technical issues.

Secondly, instead of thinking that every F-35 should have the same capacities, it would be better to have planes of differing versions that are fitted with new technology as they are developed. It happened so with the F-16. The plane saw production of 138 versions that were not retrofitted whenever a new capacity was developed. The older planes were instead deployed for the missions they served best and waited until a block upgrade was made.

Focusing on increasing the number of international allies and going for a wider sale of the aircraft in the international market would reduce the fly-away costs. With China and Russia becoming more assertive with their military power, US’s allies in Europe and Asia could look up at the F-35 as one of the major pillars to enhance their national defense mechanism. This would lead to more production of the plane and making it more affordable. If the plane’s flyaway costs get reduced faster and its technical challenges are solved even quicker, its domestic and international purchases could see a growth.

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