Trump F-35 Criticism Casts Light on Delayed Gains

15-year stealth fighter program over budget but crucial for U.S. defense

F-35
A F-35 performs as part of the Heritage Flight Team over Lake Michigan during at the 2016 Chicago Air and Water Show in Chicago / AP

Donald Trump this week joined a chorus of critics of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the U.S. military's years-long effort to bring fifth-generation stealth fighter jets to three of its services.

The Republican president-elect's criticism of the "out of control" costs associated with Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II comes after delayed progress for the program's push to deliver the next-generation aircraft to the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.

Since Lockheed Martin first announced the program 15 years ago, the development of the fighter jets has been plagued by scheduling delays and cost increases. The program is now expected to cost $400 billion for 2,457 jets, making it nearly $200 billion over budget and the Pentagon's most-costly acquisition program.

The program was also supposed to yield more than 1,000 fighter jets by 2016. Instead, it will deliver only 179.

"The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th," Trump tweeted on Monday morning, sending Lockheed stocks into a downward spiral.

Experts and officials said it would be difficult to cancel the program, which has after more than a decade finally showed signs of delivering results. Many characterize the F-35 variants as crucial to maintaining an edge over emerging adversaries, particularly China and Russia, which are investing in military technologies and new air capabilities.

"There is no other airplane in the chute that could fill the gap for this F-35 program," John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation and a retired Air Force colonel, told the Washington Free Beacon on Wednesday. "There's nothing in the chute whatsoever for us to do that."

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) backed Trump's criticism of the program in an interview with Reuters this week, but added that the president-elect would not have the authority to cancel the program because funds have already been appropriated.

"He can reduce the buy over time, next year, as we look at it again," McCain said. "But right now, the acquisition … of lots of them is already taking place, and I'm happy to say at fixed-price contract. The president, I'm sure, can examine it."

McCain, who has criticized Defense Department program cost overruns and issues with the F-35, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in April that the development of the stealth fighter had "been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance."

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program's executive officer, acknowledged the slow pace and delays associated with the program during the hearing and also spotlighted persisting problems with the aircraft's software. At the same time, he defended the program's progress.

Despite delays and cost increases, the program hit a milestone in August when the Air Force declared its first squadron of F-35As ready for battle. The announcement came about a year after the Marine Corps similarly declared initial operational capability of its own variant, the F-35B.

"Given the national security strategy, we need it," Air Force Gen. Herbert Carlisle, head of the Air Combat Command, said in August. "You look at the potential adversaries out there, or the potential environments where we have to operate this airplane, the attributes that the F-35 brings—the ability to penetrate defensive airspace, the ability to deliver precision munitions with a sensor suite that fuses data from multiple information sources—is something our nation needs."

The Air Force's variant is still far from perfect, with persisting software challenges that need to be resolved. While two of the services have declared their first F-35s ready for battle, the Navy is not expected to announce its first squadron of F-35Cs to be combat-ready until 2018.

The planes are also going to be bought by eight other nations. The Air Mobility Command delivered Israel's first two F-35 aircraft to the country on Monday, making it the first U.S. ally in the region to fly a fifth-generation fighter.

The Pentagon projects that the U.S. portion of the program will cost an estimated $12 billion annually in acquisition funding through 2038, and that the fleet of F-35 aircraft will cost more than $1 trillion in operation and support costs over its lifetime. The Government Accountability Office, which has tracked the program's progress and funding, has said that the projected cost "poses significant long-term affordability challenges for the department."

Venable, who accumulated over 4,000 hours in the cockpit during his Air Force career, said that the organization of the program as a joint operation between the Air Force, Marines, and Navy resulted in the delays and accompanying cost overruns that have prompted criticism of the program.

At the same time, he indicated that the problems with the F-35 have been overstated and that lawmakers are not necessarily aware of up-to-date information about the progress of the aircraft's development. Venable pointed to recent research he compiled, drawing on interviews with 31 Air Force pilots, showing a "high degree of confidence" in the combat-readiness of the F-35A.

He said that these delays have had negative impacts on readiness, which has already been compromised by budget reductions and force drawdowns.

"We've got really low levels of readiness in the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marine Corps," Venable said. "In the air combat arena, we are below a Carter administration level of readiness, and that is a stark reality that is hitting us right now."

Venable said that the development of the F-35, as well as boosting training of pilots, is crucial for the U.S. military to stay ahead of advancing capabilities of China and Russia. Beijing, for instance, just recently unveiled its J-20 stealth fighter jet.

"This ability to actually stand an airplane on its tail and outfight another airplane is always going to be one of the things that we have to fight for, the readiness, the training, the day-to-day blocking and tackling skills of a fighter pilot," he said. "We're going to have to continue to refine those as opposed to rely on this technology to get us through."

Some have argued that the Defense Department could have put the F-35 funds to better use. While acknowledging the unique stealth capabilities of the F-35, Chris Harmer, a former U.S. Navy commander, recently told Business Insider that the U.S. military should have invested in updating older aircraft.

"For a fraction of the cost for F-35 development, we could have updated legacy aircraft and gotten a significant portion of the F-35 capabilities," Harmer said. "The only advantage of the F-35 is to go into highly contested airspace."

"As a practical matter, the F-35 is a done deal; we've incurred the ‘sunk cost' of the R & D, and neither the USAF or USMC has any intentions of buying any more legacy airframes," Harmer added.

Lockheed Martin responded to Trump on Monday, welcoming questions about the program and underscoring its focus on the affordability of the F-35 development.

"But more importantly, it's the amazing technology," Jeff Babione, the F-35 program leader at Lockheed, said in a statement. "For the air forces that get this airplane, it's not an evolution in technology, it's a step function in capability. Whoever has it will have the most advanced air force in the world, and that’s why we’re building the F-35."

Trump has also taken aim at other deals with major defense contractors, calling on the government to cancel its order with Boeing for a new Air Force One because of cost overruns earlier this month.