The F-Word: Plane Speaking and the Sequester

Lockheed Martin F-35C

by Marsha B. Cohen

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is a black hole in the federal budget into which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been sucked and billions more seem destined to vanish.

The most recent reminder came in an April 1 UPI article about the retirement of Executive Vice President and JSF General Manager Tom Burbage from Lockheed Martin:

After spending 12 years fronting the Lockheed Martin F-35 program, Burbage retired Monday on an optimistic note but still far from clear about the aircraft’s ultimate cost and delivery schedule.

Burbage was named head of the F-35 program less than three weeks after the company beat Boeing to develop the aircraft. Then valued at $220 billion, the contract aims to build thousands of F-35 for the U.S. military and hundreds more for international partners…”The fundamental airplane is going to be there,” Burbage told reporters, Defense News said. “It’s going to be late, it’s going to be more expensive than we thought to do the development, but it’s still going to be there, which I think that’s the ultimate metric.”

Out of the “War on Terror”

The 9/11 attacks prompted the Pentagon in 2001 to push for a substantial increase of approximately $20 billion or more in its 2003 budget. Military officials expressed confidence that support for the “war on terror” would translate into recognition of the need to revitalize and rebuild the US armed services. Although Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had hoped to reduce the size of the US armed forces and cut back on big-ticket items, the Pentagon’s comptroller, Under Secretary of Defense Dov Zakheim, argued that spending had to go up because the military would need to build tanks, warships and tactical fighter jets. The already projected budget deficit with which the first year of the Bush administration had managed to eradicate the budget surplus of the Clinton presidency, and the cost of the war in Afghanistan (initially estimated to be $1 billion a month), was being funded through supplemental congressional allocations which weren’t even in the budget.

Six weeks after 9/11, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had awarded “the largest military contract in American history to Lockheed Martin to build a new generation of supersonic stealth fighter jets for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corp.”  Describing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as “more Chevrolet than Porsche,” the Times noted that according to the over $200 billion contract, Lockheed would build “more than 3,000 of the relatively low-cost aircraft over the next two decades.”

Costs, Congress and the Pentagon

The price tag for these “relatively low cost aircraft” has now skyrocketed to $400 billion, according to Time Magazine. The Pentagon admits the overall cost of the F-35 program will reach at least $1.4 trillion dollars over the next 5 decades.

The F-35 has been plagued by problems caused by the contradictory and unprecedented demands made of a single aircraft. In a Foreign Policy article from last year headlined as “The Jet That Ate the Pentagon,” Center for Defense Information analyst Winslow Wheeler, a long time F-35 skeptic, wrote “A review of the F-35’s cost, schedule, and performance — three essential measures of any Pentagon program — shows the problems are fundamental and still growing.”

Asked how far behind schedule the F-35 program was, Lockheed’s Burbage referred to a restructuring of the program in 2010, adding, “I would argue the program post-2010 is not the program pre-2010, modified slightly. It’s really a new program.” That’s apparently enough to justify over a decade of development and the hundreds of billions of dollars that have already been expended on the “old” JSF.

So why aren’t the cheerleaders of fiscal austerity in our deficit-driven Congress demanding an immediate halt to this exorbitant project whose cost has skyrocketed while the problems with it have multiplied?

One actually has, Congressmen Ron Paul, who dared to use the F-word in a Texas Straight Talk commentary on March 3 about the sequester. It has received zero attention outside his fan base:

…the entire $1.2 trillion dollars that the sequester is supposed to save could be realized by cutting one unneeded, wasteful boondoggle: the $1.5 trillion F-35 fighter program. The F-35, billed as the next generation all-purpose military fighter and bomber, has been an unmitigated disaster. Its performances in recent tests have been so bad that the Pentagon has been forced to dumb-down the criteria. It is overweight, overpriced, and unwieldy. It is also an anachronism: we no longer face the real prospect of air-to-air combat in this era of 4th generation warfare. The World War II mid-air dogfight era is long over.

What’s most remarkable about this astute, candid and scathing criticism of the F-35 program is that Paul is from Texas. At least a quarter of Texas Congress members are strong supporters of the F-35, since a major portion of the work is being done in Ft. Worth. Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), the organizer and fairy godmother of the 48-member Joint Strike Fighter Caucus in the House, declared in a 2011 speech to Lockheed Martin that the JSF was sacrosanct budget-wise and “absolutely, absolutely essential to our national defense.” Not surprisingly, Granger and her JSF caucus receive twice as much in campaign contributions as other members of Congress, according to the Dallas Morning News, with Granger topping the list.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn is also among the staunchest defenders of the F-35 in the Senate. This explains in part Cornyn’s vehement opposition — and that of Texas junior Senator Ted Cruz — to the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Before and during his nomination hearings, Hagel made no effort to hide his doubts about whether the F-35 was worth what it was costing the Pentagon, soaking up limited resources with no apparent end in sight. The alternative nominees for Secretary of Defense proposed by Hagel’s critics were supportive of the F-35

Ashton Carter, who heads acquisition for the Pentagon, certified to House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton in June 2010 that the development of the F-35 was “essential to national security”; that there were no acceptable alternatives to the F-35 that would provide “acceptable” capability at a lower cost; that the Pentagon’s Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation considered the F-35’s cost to be “reasonable”; and that the JSF was of a higher priority than other Pentagon programs that might have to be cut in order to fund it.

Michele Flournoy, the Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy between 2009-2012, whose name was also floated and cheered by Hagel’s opponents, co-authored a report by the Center for New American Security (which she co-founded), that recommended the Navy reduce the number of F-35Cs it planned to purchase by half and the Air Force cut its acquisitions of the JSF by about a third. The savings would then be applied to other acquisitions. It did not, however, call for scrapping the F-35.

The Israeli Tie-In and Sequester Silence

Which leads us to another under-reported aspect of congressional support for the F-35 that explains why Ron Paul is unique in his loud criticism of the program and certain pro-F-35 senators keep diverting media attention to Hagel’s alleged antagonism toward Israel during televised confirmation hearings. One of the justifications used by Lockheed and its partners for the problem-prone JSF is that its stratospheric cost will be offset by sales to US allies including Canada, Japan and, oh yes, Israel.

Since the inception of the JSF program, Israel made it known that it not only wanted to purchase the F-35, but be part of its development too. Israeli participation in discussions was briefly suspended in 2005 to reflect US disapproval of Israel selling advanced military technology to China, although Washington made it clear that this would not ultimately affect the sale of F-35s, which Israel hoped would begin arriving in 2012. By 2009, it was clear that the F-35s could not be delivered until 2014.

Much of the debate in Israeli military circles over whether and when Israel should attack Iran has explicitly or implicitly hinged on the JSF, with those advocating restraint arguing that Israel should wait until it has the enhanced military capabilities of the F-35 before striking. When Israel signed an agreement in October 2010 to purchase a squadron of F-35 fighters which would be received in 2015 and 2017, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Oren strongly hinted that an impending confrontation with Iran was the primary reason for the agreement. “It will be capable of sneaking in, penetrating defenses and pulling additional forces after it,” enthused Amir Oren in Haaretz, making the case for restraint until the F-35s were delivered. “The armed, in-flight refueling, flying computer will be the aircraft of the next war. And that is another reason to postpone the date.”

In July 2012, just prior to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit to Israel, the Pentagon also reached an agreement with Lockheed Martin to integrate Israeli electronic warfare equipment and Israeli-unique systems into the JSF. Israeli technology is a design component of the F-35’s augmented reality helmet, the cost of which is estimated at between $1-$2 million each. The Israeli Air Force is counting on the F-35 to maintain its qualitative edge, still eagerly anticipating and preparing for the delivery of its squadron.

There is a significant overlap among members of the House and Senate from both parties who have been most supportive of the F-35 (many of whom are also ironically “deficit hawks”) and those from both parties who claim they are Israel’s staunchest and most unwavering defenders. Not all “pro-Israel” members of Congress approve of the F-35, however. Arizona Sen. John McCain has expressed serious reservations, calling the program a “scandal” and a “tragedy” in 2011. Nonetheless, it’s Ron Paul — perceived as so anti-Israel that he alone among the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination was not invited to make his case to the Republican Jewish Coalition in 2012 — who can speak bluntly about killing the F-35 in ways that others won’t. In contrast, John Cornyn complained to AIPAC’s Policy Conference in March, “I’m so disappointed that our delivery of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft keeps getting delayed. The F-35s are remarkably sophisticated planes that will dramatically enhance Israel’s security.” (At least one Jewish news organization interpreted this as a swipe against the Obama administration.)

The problems with the F-35 aren’t going away. Two months ago, the Pentagon called for all F-35s to be grounded when a crack on a turbine blade in the Pratt and Whitney jet engine was discovered during a routine inspection of a test aircraft in California. Despite the promises of retiring Lockheed EVP Burbage about how the F-35 will eventually “be there,” Pierre Sprey predicts the Pentagon will “kill the program after 500 airplanes.”

In the meantime, don’t count on hearing this F-word anytime soon during all the squawking about the sequester.

Photo: The US Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.