Never in the history of air combat has a pilot landed back at base, after putting their life on the line flying a grueling combat mission and remarked, “Thank goodness my jet met its life cycle sustainment cost estimates.”
While this may sound absurd, it reflects the line of inquiry pursued during a recent House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing in which the F-35 was excoriated. Like most defense acquisition programs, aspects of the F-35 program need to improve, but the hearing manufactured a distortion of context by omitting details about the growing threat, the geriatric Air Force, or even a discussion of how Congress can chart improvement paths. Balance is needed before the hatchets cause irrecoverable wounds to the nation’s security.
Essential to know, the F-35 meets a key requirement for the entire joint team: securing air superiority. No ship at sea, forces on land, space installation, or rear base will remain viable for long without protection from enemy air attack. While congressional leaders must oversee, their efforts should not undermine fundamental capabilities. What is the cost of failing to secure the sky? It is a price of lives lost, campaign objectives failed, and key American interests damaged. The truth is that America needs the F-35 to succeed, and it needs it in high volume now. So do our allies who stake their nations’ security on this program.
First and foremost, oversight requires superior units of measure. Today, frothing about total life sustainment costs over the anticipated 66-year operational span of the aircraft reflects an absurd measure. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), this figure now stands at $1.27 trillion and literally measures every nut, bolt, software upgrade, set of tires and depot visit every aircraft may ever require. Do we buy a house by adding up every possible cost we could incur during the decades of ownership to include stocking the fridge? No. We buy based on meeting our needs — that is, the effects we desperately seek — location, good schools, security and a better life. As a preeminent factor, the 66-year life cycle cost of the home is ludicrous. Measures need to focus on cost per effect.
The F-35 is not some newer version of the old. It is the only fighter in production that affords the combination of stealth, information dominance, and combat attributes necessary to fight, win and get home safely against modern threats.
Members of the HASC were quick to berate the F-35’s operating cost yet failed to assert that a few F-35s can accomplish what would take over a dozen or more older types of aircraft to accomplish — and at lower risk. Mathematical genius is not required to see that the F-35 drives real-world life-cycle savings because it is so much more capable.
Current F-35 challenges are teething challenges common in any program’s early years. The GAO F-35 report, which informed much of the HASC hearing’s debate, highlighted very real problems — problems with too few spare parts, slow depot engine repair, software coding speed bumps, and more. None of these challenges is novel for any new program.
Take the F-16, for example — early jets were involved in mishaps with alarming regularity where the aircraft was either lost, had over $1 million damage, or the pilot was killed. In the program’s first two decades, F-16s crashed an average of 11 times a year, losing roughly a quarter of the pilots along the way. In stark contrast, the F-35 is a superior performer. In the first four years of its initial operational capability, from 1979 through 1982, the F-16 experienced 29 such mishaps. In the same relative period, from 2016 to 2019, the F-35 experienced a mere two. Nonetheless, those dark days of the F-16 are forgotten and the program is now viewed as a fantastic success.
For those who remain skeptical of the F-35, what else is there? To kill or radically curtail the program now — one of the pathways suggested by the GAO — would cede billions of dollars in sunk costs, create a requirements crisis, and lead to a new program that would cost more and take longer to field. Consider previous shortsighted decisions, such as the premature cancellation of the F-22 in 2009. The Air Force was left flying the fighter force Ronald Reagan bought them. Those aircraft are literally worn out and becoming obsolescent against modern threats that both China and Russia pose. The service has no choice but to double down on its F-35 buy.
Congressional leaders would do well to heed the wisdom of Sir Frederick Handley Page, a British aviation pioneer: “Nobody has ever won a war by trying to run it on the cheap. Nothing is so expensive as losing a war by saving money. If you want the cheapest possible Air Force today, it is very easy to standardize on a whole lot of aircraft that will be of no use when the war comes.”
Get real and solve the challenges. The United States and our allies need the F-35 to win.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Larry Stutzriem served as a fighter pilot and held various command positions. He concluded his service as the director of plans, policy and strategy at North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. He currently holds the General T. Michael Moseley Chair at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.