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Letter From Aviation History—July 2013

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: May 03, 2013 
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$400 Billion Fighter Fiasco

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (see "Monster Singles," P. 32, July 2013 issue) is a case study in how not to build a modern military airplane. At a time when sequestration cutbacks have gutted some federal programs and compelled the FAA to announce the closure of 149 airport control towers, the F-35 has remained essentially bulletproof. As The Washington Post noted in a March 10 article titled "Too Big To Bail," the Department of Defense and Lockheed Martin "have constructed what amounts to a budgetary force field around the nearly $400 billion program."

The F-35 fiasco is not so much an indictment of Lockheed Martin as it is a testament to the sad state of current U.S. military procurement. Because the program supports some 133,000 jobs spread across 45 states, with the prospect of almost double that number when full production commences, it enjoys unwavering support in Congress, despite continual budgetary overruns that have put it 70 percent over initial cost estimates. Most disturbing, as the Post points out, "Instead of building and evaluating prototype models before deciding to move forward with full-scale assembly, the F-35 is being mass-produced while it is still being assessed by pilots."

Those pilots recently reported serious flaws in the fighter. A February DoD evaluation report summarizing initial flight tests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida of the Air Force's F-35A version highlighted a litany of problems that needed to be resolved before pilot training could begin. These included significant issues with the pilot's helmet-mounted display and ejection seat system, much higher than expected abort rates, maintenance difficulties, cold/hot weather issues and software shortcomings that severely restricted the flight test envelope. "The out-of-cockpit visibility in the F-35 is less than other Air Force fighters," the report stated. One pilot commented that poor aft visibility "will get the pilot gunned every time."

And that's just the Air Force version. Recent reports have revealed that the high temperatures generated by the vertical landing exhaust on the Marines' F-35B STOVL version require special landing pads made of advanced refractory concrete or layers of aluminum alloy matting, so forget about initial claims that the fighter will be able to fly from "unprepared, forward operational airbases." The Navy's F-35C currently has no carrier capability, as the tailhook had to be redesigned and there are significant concerns about the carrier approach landing speed. Unlike the F-35A, the F-35B and C carry no internal cannon, requiring external gun pods–a throwback to the temporary solution cooked up for the F-4 Phantom during the Vietnam War.

Under the Pentagon's "buy before you fly" acquisition process, otherwise known as "concurrency," the 65 F-35s already built, and those that come off the assembly line in the next few years, will require extensive retrofits that could cost as much as $4 billion, according to the Post. This ass-backwards method of airplane procurement was standard operating procedure for another government, that of Nazi Germany late in World War II (see "The Luftwaffe's Wooden Wonder," P. 38), but the Third Reich had no choice. At this point, it would seem, neither does America. With the average age of the military's fighter fleet at an all-time high, and no other viable options, the F-35 has to work.



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