It can be tough to find stories about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that don’t go out of their way to paint the platform as either an incredibly overpriced boondoggle or the best thing to happen to military air power since the invention of nose-mounted radar. From an editorial standpoint, these “absolute good” and “absolute bad” angles tend to elicit the most engaged reactions from readers — many of whom have preexisting notions about the program, and from a coverage standpoint, they aren’t hard to produce. There is objectively plenty of good and bad to pull from this program, making it easy to portray it in either light.
But as is so often the case when it comes to massive programs (or just about anything in our complicated 21st century world), the truth about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is not that it was a perfectly executed exercise in new technology development nor has it been an abject failure. The F-35 is an incredibly capable platform that will continue to develop new ways to be effective for decades to come, thanks to its overdeveloped hardware and fluid approach to software improvements. It has also, however, shined a light on a number of ineffective and inefficient procurement strategies, many of which were born out of the Pentagon’s own demands, rather than Lockheed Martin’s business acumen.
At the end of the day, the taxpayer may have overpaid and may continue to overpay for the capabilities offered by the F-35 program, but that’s a difficult egg to crack because even the Pentagon isn’t yet sure of just how effective the F-35 may prove to be in combat. In the decades to come, the platform may prove to be the most successful multi-role fighter in history, serving in close air support, deep penetration strike, air-to-air conflict and even enemy ship hunting operations on the high seas, all with immense levels of success. Or, it may not. It truly is too early to call the program a resounding success, but it’s equally premature to objectively call it overpriced. If it dominates warfare for a half century, what price tag would be appropriate?
While the jury may be out on the overall efficacy of the F-35 program, there’s little debating the fact that the effort to field the most advanced fighter on the planet could have gone more smoothly, both in terms of economics and technical setbacks. It’s already commonly understood that one of the biggest issues with the F-35 rollout was the Pentagon’s strategy of “concurrency” throughout testing and delivery. In effect, the Department of Defense started taking deliveries of F-35s well before testing was completed on the airframe, with the assumption being that any small issues that surfaced throughout the testing phase could be addressed in the platforms already built. Unfortunately, a large number of issues were identified, making the repairs on those first aircraft a far more expensive (and in-depth) undertaking than previously imagined.
However, even that problem can, to a large extent, be attributed to a previous mistake: choosing to make a single platform to fill the very disparate needs of different branches of military service.
Lockheed Martin does offer three variants of the F-35, each tuned specifically to the needs of different branches of service. The Air Force fields the F-35A, which needs a runway to take off and land. The Navy uses the F-35C, which is meant for carrier duty, and the Marine Corps uses the F-35B, which can land vertically and take off on short and even austere runways. Each of these platforms has some unique traits inherent to their respective service, but for the most part, the F-35 has been a one-size-fits-all approach to 21st century warfare — and that makes things both complex and expensive. As Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. points out about the F-35 in his analysis of hypersonic missile development efforts for Breaking Defense, “enough key components were shared that what one service wanted often impacted the others, adding complexity or cost for features they didn’t want.”
Lockheed Martin was already given the seemingly impossible task of fielding a fighter that could serve as both a data fusion hub and a stealth attack platform. Still, having to marry those requirements to a platform that could do all the things the Air Force expects out of an A-10 Thunderbolt II as well as the things the Marine Corps expects out of an AV-8B Harrier II and what the Navy expects out of an F/A-18 Super Hornet… Now, you begin to understand why this joint service program may have bitten off more than it could chew with early cost estimates.
Today, most programs (like the aforementioned hypersonics) that reach across services are handled as joint interest efforts, rather than joint service ones. What does that mean? Well, basically that the services can share testing data and even team up for purchasing, but ultimately each is responsible for fielding its own systems that meet their own needs.
“It’s a joint interest program, not a joint program,” Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters about the Pentagon’s offensive hypersonic missile efforts. “We don’t want a big kind of program office like you had for…other major defense acquisition programs.”
Almost seems like he had a specific program in mind that he was reluctant to say, right?