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The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the poster child for ineptitude and inefficiency in defense procurement, has been in development for nearly 18 years and is eight years behind schedule. The total acquisition costs of the fifth-generation aircraft now exceed $428 billion, nearly double the initial estimate of $233 billion. The lifetime operation and maintenance costs of the most expensive weapon system in history will total approximately $1.2 trillion.
Thanks to the massive delays, the fourth-generation aircraft the JSF was intended to replace have reached the end of their service lives. The A-10, AV-8B, F-15C/D, F-16, and F/A-18, were all supposed to be in the boneyard, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) version of an old folk’s home, yet they still survive.
In a March Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said the DOD requested funding for the F-15EX, which is an updated version of the F-15C/D being sold to countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He said, it is “slightly less expensive for procurement than the F-35, but it’s more than 50 percent cheaper to operate over time and it has twice as many hours in terms of how long it lasts.” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson also cited the high operating costs of the F-35 as a factor in purchasing the F-15EX.
However, some members of Congress have objected to this proposal. Last month, the House Armed Services Committee authorized the purchase of two F-15EX aircraft, but withheld funding for the remaining six until the DOD provides more details on the program. But, the FY 2020 DOD appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives ignored that recommendation and provided funding for all eight F-15EX.
Stopgap funding for additional past-generation aircraft may increasingly become the norm due to the JSF’s continued delays and unreliability. The F-35 faces a litany of ongoing problems, including 13 category one issues, defined as major flaws that hamper mission effectiveness and impact safety. These defects include extreme sinus and ear pain experienced by pilots due to rapid changes in cabin pressure, damage to the stealth coating of the plane at high speeds, and lighting issues with the pilot’s helmet that complicate carrier landings.
As of February 2018, only 51 percent of the JSFs purchased by DOD were operational.
The JSF program has arrived at a crucial stage in the development process as the DOD will decide in October whether to begin full-scale production. Failing to address defects prior to entering this stage will dramatically raise the overall cost of the program, as any aircraft acquired in the interim will need to be retrofitted down the line.
Unless the DOD comes to grips with the principal causes of the JSF acquisition disaster, it seems likely these blunders will occur again when it comes time to buy the next generation of aircraft. While it is too late to reverse the errors that led to the current situation, it is not too late to fix the F-35’s problems.
To do otherwise will exacerbate the current fiscal difficulties and risk leaving the nation without needed defense capabilities.
Tom Schatz is the President of Citizens Against Government Waste. CAGW is the nation’s largest nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in government.