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Sympathy for the JSF

By Taylor Marvin

F-35B in testing. Lockheed Martin photo.

In Foreign Policy, Wilson Wheeler calls for the cancellation of the troubled F-35 program:

“If the F-35’s performance were spectacular, it might be worth the cost and wait. But it is not. Even if the aircraft lived up to its original specifications — and it will not — it would be a huge disappointment. The reason it is such a mediocrity also explains why it is unaffordable and, for years to come, unobtainable.”

The F-35 program is a disaster, and one that will haunt the US defense-industrial complex for decades. Two decades into development, incredibly, there’s still a major chance the program won’t succeed: when naval analyst Raymond Pritchett recently called the program not too big to fail but “way too big to ever possibly succeed,” he wasn’t exaggerating.

Maybe the F-35 program is on the cusp of finally coming together. But even if the JSF program does result in anywhere near the number of planes its architects intend, the opportunity costs are enormous. The F-35 program is currently 38 percent of all current DoD procurement (via Galrahn). That’s a mind-boggling chunk of the Pentagon’s budget, and one that would buy a lot of weapons systems nowhere near as risky as the JSF. The F-35 isn’t a good plane, and its bloat snuffed out a lot of potentially better, less comprehensive alternatives over the last two decades.

But calls to cancel the mammoth program aren’t ultimately going anywhere. “Too big to succeed” aside, the JSF really is to big to fail — no one in the tangled Pentagon bureaucracy is going to gut a program they’ve invested 20 years in, and Congress isn’t either. As the only manned US multirole fighter aircraft currently under development, the F-35 is the only game in town — optimistic talk of more capable drones aside, if the USAF wants to buy new non-legacy fighter airframes before the 2040s it has to be the F-35. The Navy’s nascent F/A-XX program and open Super Hornet production lines gives it greater flexibility, but a next generation Navy fighter that isn’t the F-35C won’t arrive until the 2030s, at the earliest.

Cutting the JSF program would force the US military to rely on F/A-18E/Fs and F-15 C/Es through the first half of the 20th century, at least. While these alternatives are capable aircraft, no amount of upgrades will change the fact that these non-stealthy fighters are based on airframes designed four decades ago. Modernization aside, the American defense community is right to be worried the mid-century competitiveness and deterrence value of aircraft with roots in the 1970s, especially when Russian and China are both embarking on ambitious fifth-generation development efforts. Similarly, while rapid advances in air defense radar means that the F-35s moderate level of stealthing will lose effectiveness through its delayed lifetime, it’s hard to argue that non-stealthy Super Hornets and Strike Eagles are a better strike option in a world where advanced air defense is rapidly proliferating.

Whether the F-35 will be competitive with its bigger, and likely significantly more affordable, Russian and Chinese rivals is another, and contentious, question. But if the F-35 is canceled the only real option is to rely on legacy platforms until advanced, air-to-air capable drones come online. Whether that’s a less risky option than sticking with the F-35 is debatable, but it is difficult to imagine the Pentagon or congress taking such a drastic change of course.

Anyway, normative discussions of the F-35 family’s strategic utility are useless at this point. Rumors of large cuts aside, the Pentagon has invested to much into the JSF to seriously consider major downsizes to the program, and the massive opportunity costs of a decade of serious F-35 development have eaten up funds that conceivably would have otherwise gone to other, less ambitious manned fighter projects. At least in the medium-term, US tactical airpower lives and dies on the success of the F-35. Even the controversial F-35B — the Marine Corp’s short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant — isn’t likely to be cut. Major defense procurement initiatives get canceled after spending billions in development costs all the time, but the JSF program’s multi-service nature will likely insulate the Marine’s specific variant from elimination.

F-35B test landing. Lockheed Martin photo.

F-35B test landing. Lockheed Martin photo.

The Marines’ F-35B is the most troubled, and vulnerable, variant. How useful is it? Looking strictly at it’s abilities, it’s difficult to justify its 300 million per aircraft flyaway cost. But there’s reason to suspect that the F-35B’s STOVL capabilities are important.

Last year I defended the F-35B as an important component of future American airpower:

“However, the F-35B is a valuable program and shouldn’t  be cut. It’s certainly true that cutting military spending that’s far, far beyond what is needed to defend the country and dangerously swells that national debt for no benefit is an issue of pressing importance. Also, all the criticisms of the F-35B are true — it will be more expensive and less capable than its sister variants. However, advocates of the F-35B are stressing the wrong attributes of the aircraft because it hints at an uncomfortable truth: the value of STOVL is that it decentralizes US military assets that probably aren’t survivable in a major conflict.”

Nuclear aircraft carriers are a remarkably versatile platform for projecting power, and will remain so through this century (the fact that the Chinese Navy is investing considerable effort in acquiring their own flattops is a sign that they don’t see big carriers becoming obsolete any time soon). But there’s increasing skepticism about large carriers survivability in a major war. Rapidly improving Chinese anti-access/area-denial weapons like the DF-21 D anti-ship ballistic missile stand a reasonable chance of successfully destroying any US carrier that strays within range. Carrier battle groups field impressive defenses, but it’s unlikely that they would be able to successfully counter large numbers of ballistic anti-ship missiles — it will always be easier to saturate an existing missile defense system than build one capable of countering advanced threats. Chinese A2/AD capabilities will make the US hesitant to commit a vulnerable carrier to a crisis in the South China Sea, or at least force the US Navy to remain 3,000 km offshore, outside the range of Chinese ASBMs. Of course, amphibious assault ships aren’t anywhere near expendable. But if the United States deems it prudent to possess the ability to operate in a contested Western Pacific, naval fighters able to operate off smaller ships are valuable. It’s unlikely that US threats to operate CVNs within the range of ASBMs will ever be credible. The F-35B isn’t a magic bullet, but its STOVL capability is valuable. Whether that’s worth the cost is another discussion.

The real takeaway from the JSF fiasco is that advances in anti-air defenses and AA/AD strategies and exponentially increasing complexity is making all ambitious aircraft development programs more expensive. Baselining a multirole aircraft built for three services around a supersonic STOVL variant was an unfortunate idea, and the F-35 is a uniquely bad program. But the root causes of the slowly ongoing F-35 disaster aren’t unique, and the hour’s too late for regrets.

Update 9/15/2015: I added a link to an October 2011 post by Raymond Pritchett, who earlier argued that an independent Marine STOVL fighter likely would have been cut. I should cited him in the original post; my apologies.

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