Rough Ride for the F-35

The F-35 fighter jet was expected to be exhibited at an international air show a few weeks ago — a chance for America to showcase its state-of-the-art war plane, the world’s most expensive weapons project. But, in an embarrassing turn of events, the star-crossed, single-engine F-35 was a no-show.

Instead of making its debut at the event in Farnborough, England — where government officials, defense contractors and experts gather annually to ogle new aviation technology — the plane was back in the United States, crippled by the latest in a series of setbacks. Despite this tormented history, Congress is still pouring money into a program that is intended to produce more than 2,400 F-35s for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines through 2037.

The most recent problem was the failure of a Pratt & Whitney engine on an F-35 at a Florida air base on June 23; a fire broke out as the pilot was preparing for takeoff. Afterward, the Pentagon grounded and ordered inspections of the entire 97-plane fleet, built by Lockheed Martin. The F-35 was allowed to resume flying in mid-July but at a slower speed; pilots were required to have the engines inspected every three hours, thus dooming plans for a trans-Atlantic trip to the air show.

Although a safety board is still analyzing the problem, the Pentagon and the contractors are confident it was a temporary glitch. But trouble has dogged the F-35 since development began 14 years ago. The program was supposed to prove that the Pentagon could build a technologically advanced weapon affordably, without huge delays. But the $400 billion price tag is 42 percent higher than the 2007 estimate. The cost per plane has doubled, and it will not go into full production until 2019, six years late.

Successive reports — from the Government Accountability Office, nongovernmental groups, even the Pentagon’s own testing office — have exposed serious deficiencies. The F-35’s most unusual aspect is its ability to integrate sensors and weapons, but the software still isn’t working. In March, an accountability office report highlighted “delays in software delivery, limited capability in the software when delivered, and the need to fix problems and retest multiple software versions.”

In January, the Pentagon’s testing office called the F-35’s performance “immature” and said it “relies heavily on contractor support and workarounds unacceptable for combat operations.” William Hartung of the Center for International Policy has argued that even if the technical problems are solved, the plane “will be too small to serve as an effective bomber, not maneuverable enough for aerial dogfights and too fast and vulnerable to do well at supporting troops on the ground.” And there is more at stake than just American needs. A dozen other countries plan to buy the planes.

Some experts say the Pentagon could save money and still ensure that America has a better plane than its adversaries by buying fewer F-35s and more of the F-15, F-16 and F-18 fighter jets already in the arsenal and modernizing the A-10 Warthog, a ground-attack plane. Others propose halting F-35 purchases until operational testing is completed in 2019 and everyone has a clearer sense of the plane’s strengths and weaknesses.

Those are sensible ideas. But common sense evaporates when it comes to big-ticket weapons, and members of Congress are being heavily lobbied by deep-pocketed defense contractors. In approving the 2015 defense bill recently, the House Appropriations Committee voted to buy 38 new F-35s, while the Senate committee agreed on 34, which is how many the Pentagon had requested.

Even budget hawks aren’t pushing to restrain or seriously reconsider the program. But a serious reappraisal is long overdue.

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