F-35’s Turbulent Future

By Mackenzie Eaglen

In the span of just several years, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F-35 program went from being the poster child of “acquisition malpractice” and an example of “the worst [relationship] ever seen” between a defense contractor and US military to one that is on track and increasingly cost-effective. With remarkable unity, Pentagon leaders—both civilian and uniformed—shifted from a tone of near-universal negativity just three years ago about the largest weapons program on the books to a shared song sheet of good news and nothing-to-see-here quality.

While there has been some improvement in the program’s stability and acquisition plan since Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put the F-35B “on probation” in 2011, the biggest shift has been in political support from Pentagon leaders for the fighter that became too big to fail after the F-22 was prematurely canceled by President Obama in his first defense budget.
These and other factors in testing and milestone achievement helped bring relative steadiness to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program last year. But that does not mean the JSF is set to soar from here on out. A flat defense budget for the foreseeable future combined with growing international wavering signal trouble ahead for the Joint Strike Fighter.

Domestic Turbulence From All Sides

Last year’s deal to amend the Budget Control Act yet again was generous to the Pentagon—coming within 1% of the president’s own request for the year. This funding predictability allowed the F-35 to be bought at planned levels. In addition, Congress added another eleven airframes above that.

This year’s defense budget, however, took a nearly $10 billion total procurement funding hit, affecting most programs big and small. The Joint Strike Fighter specifically saw 45 F-35As subtracted from its latest five-year plan.

While the current Secretary of Defense is attempting to get the Navy to buy more carrier JSFs in the next half decade, his decision will be promptly revisited by a new team next year. Further, the Navy’s budget request makes clear the service’s continued, unchanging priorities: buy more Super Hornets in the near-term and then wait to see what the next Pentagon chief thinks about the Joint Strike Fighter program in general.

It has long been the Navy’s preference to bet on a 6th-generation aircraft while buying more 4th-generation fighters in the interim and skipping 5th-gen altogether (if allowed). Its 2017 budget was therefore no surprise.

By contrast, quiet Air Force signaling seems to suggest the likelihood of not only modernizing the entire F-15C fleet, but also purchasing more fourth-generation fighters to bridge the yawning gap to the F-35 in the near future.

Nor was Congress’ boost of JSF purchases last year the whole story. The legislative branch has been much more skeptical than Pentagon backers about this program in recent years. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Senate’s victory in forcing defense officials to re-validate the overall planned Joint Strike Fighter requirement of 2,443 fighters. It is an exceedingly reasonable request, particularly in light of the BCA—now in its sixth year of (modified) enactment—and a defense budget under increasing pressure from domestic health care entitlement programs, aging Baby Boomers, and rising interest rates.

Additionally, the F-35 is now in direct competition for funding with the congressionally popular A-10 Warthog and increasingly with the new tanker and bomber, all of which are fighting for scarce funds under the Air Force topline. The Air Force’s reduced F-35A purchase in 2017 is explicitly tied to maintaining the A-10 fleet until 2022.

The Air Force plans to retire A-10 squadrons beginning in 2018 as F-35 squadrons come online. Yet the planned close air support testing competition between the A-10 and F-35 in 2018 will occur before the Air Force variant fields its most critical close air support capabilities. Congresswoman Martha McSally’s (R-AZ) line of questioning in yesterday’s hearing on the F-35 indicated that the retirement of the A-10 may be still further delayed. The A-10 will surely continue siphoning dollars from the F-35A over the next five years, or longer, as a result of strong political pressure.

Outside pressure on the F-35A, combined with lingering Navy aversion to the F-35C and likely further delays in software development, all bode ill for maintaining enough momentum on the program to keep international partners from tweaking and shrinking their own planned JSF purchases.

International Support Shaky; Partners Ready to Change Orders at First Opportunity

Though 2015 saw a number of international JSF “firsts”—like the first international delivery to Italy—it also sowed the seeds of setbacks for the program abroad.

New Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau ran on an explicit promise to pull out of the F-35 program altogether. While Trudeau has yet to follow through and the government is still participating in the JSF program through September, a government spokesman has said this should not signal a commitment to purchase the F-35.

Following the Canadian election, the Australian Senate indicated skepticism by voting to initiative a review of the Australian Defense Force’s proposed F-35 buy, with a verdict expected by May. Parliament also shot down ambitious plans to procure F-35Bs for Australia’s two new Canberra-class amphibious assault ships.

The 2015 United Kingdom Strategic Defense and Security Review ostensibly bolstered the F-35 program by accelerating B-model deliveries, but its simultaneous embrace of the Typhoon and refusal to commit to its original 138-plane buy casts doubt on the rosy future of the F-35 in Britain—and also in countries considering both the F-35 and the Typhoon.

Denmark postponed its decision to late spring to replace F-16s following public criticism, and its total buy could be 24 aircraft rather than the originally planned 48 planes. Belgium’s F-16 replacement competition was once dominated by the F-35 because Belgium required a nuclear-capable aircraft. But that requirement was removed, and the competition is now wide open.

Elsewhere, the Norwegian purchase remains flat at 28 planes out of an original requirement of 52 despite desperate pleas from the Norwegian military to its parliament to commit to the full order. Low oil prices and weak currency have re-ignited Norwegian political battles over the jet’s future, with a possible decline to 42 total jets recently floated.

In Israel, a Defense Minister-approved buy of 51 JSF airframes was nixed, and the Israeli Defense Forces have only been given funding authority for 33 aircraft—not even enough for two full squadrons. Of late, rumors surrounding Tel Aviv’s acquisition of B-model F-35s has increased, despite the fact that the F-35B was once only considered a luxury add-on once Israel had bought 52 A-models.

The Next Administration Will Cement the Joint Strike Fighter’s Fate

Once the first partner nation pulls out of the program, like Canada, or slashes its planned purchase of the JSF, others countries will be more likely to reexamine their own investments in the program. Pentagon leaders know this, and it’s one of the primary reasons political leaders at the Defense Department have so solidly united behind the Joint Strike Fighter and attempted to highlight only positive news about the program. But a passing of the baton at the Pentagon is about to be underway—even if a Democrat maintains the White House—and this will include a fresh and most likely skeptical re-look at the F-35.

While the F-35 program seems to have achieved a comfortable cruising altitude recently, the program faces heightened domestic and international uncertainty in the coming years. The next administration will confront continued budget handcuffs, an ever-rising nuclear recapitalization bill, and a tri-service deferred modernization bow wave. Each of these challenges will demand significant resources be reallocated under the defense topline to an extent thus far avoided since the Budget Control Act was passed in 2011—putting at risk current JSF procurement plans.

Ms. Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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