Springtime in Washington. Pollen—and politics—is in the air.
In the Battle of the Budget, the Air Force and its premier acquisition program, the F-35 fighter, is under attack. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith launched his opening salvo, calling the F-35 “a rathole” and saying he wants to “figure out how we can get a mix of fighter attack aircraft that’s the most cost-effective.”
It’s a curious choice of words. While the projected life-cycle costs for all three versions of the F-35 over a span of nearly 40 years is $1.6 trillion, the $80 million-per-copy cost to acquire these jets is less than some last-generation aircraft—and a bargain considering the combat-multiplying effect of this vastly superior platform.
If the F-35 didn’t work—if it couldn’t evade radar, couldn’t fly in combat, couldn’t compete with the most sophisticated air defenses in the world—then it would be right to call it quits. But staying the course on F-35 is not buying into a “sunk cost fallacy,” where one keeps doubling down on a losing bet in the hopes that things will turn around later. The F-35 is already a success, demonstrating combat flexibility and delivering a decisive advantage in Red Flag exercises.
Pilots have raved about the jet’s performance. In its first Red Flag, F-35s scored a 20-to-1 kill ratio against a simulated enemy. In another, it flew 16 simulated offensive counter air missions, eliminating 100 surface-to-air missile sites without losing a plane. That’s not just good performance—it’s unmatched performance.
There are at least three arguments for the F-35 as the most cost-effective fighter the Air Force can buy:
Stealth. When adversary forces turn on S-400 and future Chinese- and Russian-made air defense systems, what will they see? An F-35 shows up on radar as the size of mosquito. It’s not quite invisible, but it’s too small to track effectively. Eliminate its low-observable features and sure, you save some money. You also give the enemy something they will recognize: targets.
Suddenly, “cost-effectiveness” takes on a whole new light. What price shall we put on the lives of American pilots? Is America too cheap to put our sons and daughters in the best combat aircraft money can buy?
Mission efficiency. A pair of F-35s can strike multiple targets in a contested environment with no support save, perhaps, a tanker. To get two conventional fighter jets to a similarly contested target requires 10 to 20 additional aircraft. The strike jets must be accompanied by other planes to jam enemy radar, defend the attackers, and provide situational awareness. So even if the F-35 costs twice as much per flight hour as an F-16—it’s less than that, in fact—it’s still the more cost-effective option. Buying F-35s eliminates the need for other aircraft and the personnel, acquisition, training, and logistics that go with them. No economic argument against the F-35 is viable without that calculus.
To opt for a lesser aircraft is specious, like the husband who argues that instead of a car, he should get a motorcycle. He knows full well that he can’t ride in snow or rain nor ferry his family on the bike, so will ultimately need another vehicle. It’s self-deception to think otherwise.
Unlike a motorcycle, the magic of the F-35 is that it is far more than a one-for-one replacement. It buys more value for the money.
Deterrence. The most cost-effective investments in defense are the ones that, through they’re very presence, change adversaries’ plans and behavior. Why has China and Russia invested so much in air defense? Why are both pursuing stealth aircraft like the F-35? It’s because they know that without them, they don’t stand a chance against a U.S. Air Force fully equipped with F-35s.
Stealth is a disruptive game-changer. It imposes costs on the opposition. That’s part of what makes it so cost-effective itself. Failing to buy the full complement of F-35s therefore plays into their hands.
Few know better than Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. how great a threat the U.S. faces from China and the parallel threat he faces in Washington. He commanded Pacific Air Forces in his last job before becoming Chief, so he knows the area and the arc of challenges ranging from China in the south through North Korea and Russia in the north. Brown recently asked for a review of “tactical aviation” and dialed in the Defense Department’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office to help. He believes an objective, credible study can help make his case to critics like Rep. Smith.
The study could make a big difference, but it also involves risk. Inviting CAPE to the party means bringing in long-time F-35 skeptics. And embracing the naval term “tactical aviation” to describe combat aircraft devalues the fifth-generation, manned F-35 to be the equal of less-capable older platforms and yet-to-be proven unmanned alternatives. The Navy and Marine Corps use the “tac-air” term because they see jets as supporting elements to their aircraft carriers and Marine Expeditionary Units.
In fact, however, the radar-evading F-35’s very presence changes the nature of battle. That makes it a strategic investment and combat tool, not a tactical one.
Whatever we call it, this combat aviation review must be forward-looking. There is little to be gained by dwelling on the compromises wrought by making one airplane meet the competing visions of three military services. Those decisions are done. If the study focuses on combat effectiveness and efficiency, on the cost not of individual airplanes but of accomplishing the missions they must undertake, then the study will yield valuable results. If it’s all about the cost of the program from its inception, it will miss the mark.
The Air Force, the F-35 Joint Program Office, and Lockheed Martin still have work to do to shave costs out of the program. It shouldn’t cost $36,000 per flight hour to operate this jet and with work they can get that figure down. Likewise, there are logistics solutions to ongoing parts shortages. Solving those will be a whole lot easier than canceling a program on which we and 11 critical allies depend.
Tell your Congressman, tell your friends: Cutting back the F-35 in favor of last year’s model is a move in the wrong direction.