CAPITOL HILL: The Pentagon’s most expensive conventional weapon program emerged largely unscathed from perhaps its most intensive review before the crucial congressional subcommittee that controls military funding. As over budget and behind schedule as the $391 billion, 2,443-plane F-35 program has fallen since initial promises of a low-cost, multi-service Joint Strike Fighter, two high-powered panels of witnesses told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee that there was no alternative to the F-35.

It was an extraordinary lineup: The four-star chiefs of the Air Force and Navy; the four-star Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps; the three-star heads of the F-35 program; the Defense Department’s top tester and top acquisition official; the Government Accountability Office’s top acquisition expert; and a lone thinktanker, the Brooking Institution’s widely cited Michael O’Hanlon. But it was also telling just how lackluster attendance was on the part of the legislators who had convened all this starpower. Just six of the SAC-D’s 19 members bothered to show up, and one, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski (R), only wanted to question the Air Force Chief of Staff about plans to remove F-16s from her homestate’s Eileson Air Force Base. (The House Armed Services Committee has rejected measures to dial back the F-35 program as well).

[Click here to read about Under Secretary Frank Kendall’s admission of the damage done by Chinese hacking of the F-35 program.]

The questions left unanswered by the hearing were when the three variants of the high-tech stealthy fighter – the Air Force F-35A, Marine Corps F-35B, and Navy F-35C — would become truly combat ready (as opposed to just “initial operational capability” or IOC), how much they would cost to buy, how much to maintain, and how many can the nation afford. That’s an especially complex calculation because buying fewer aircraft doesn’t affect fixed overhead costs, so the price per plane goes up as the number of planes goes down. Many thinktanks have called for a smaller F-35 fleet, and at the hearing Brookings’ O’Hanlon argued for a force of only about 1,250 to meet the high-end threats, while buying more older, so-called legacy fighters to handle other needs. But, he acknowledged, the reduced buy would drive up unit cost so the 50 percent cut in total buy would only provide about a 20 percent savings.

As is the case with many of the futuristic weapons programs, the biggest uncertainty on making the F-35 operational was the ability to develop and test the sophisticated computer software that made the fighter what one witness called “a flying computer.”

The program executive officer, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan – who once said the military’s relationship with contractor Lockheed Martin was “the worst I’ve ever seen” – said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Lockheed Martin and its suppliers could produce the block 3F software necessary to make the jet combat ready by 2017, when all three of the participating services expect to declare full operational capability.

In his first major initiative as chairman of the crucial subcommittee Sen. Dick Durbin noted that the F-35 “has had more than its share of problems” and served as “a text book example” of the Pentagon’s procurement woes. Durbin challenged the witnesses to tell him what they have learned from this experience and what they were doing to ensure it would not be repeated. He also wanted to hear “if any alternative is being considered for a less costly fighter.”

He received a mixed answer to the first set of questions. But on the second, there was agreement even among the program critics that it would be impractical and wasteful to start over again after investing more than 12 years and $44 billion on the Lockheed-built jet.

“I don’t believe we have any alternative but to make the program work” said one of the program’s toughest critics inside the Pentagon, Michael Gilmore, director of Defense Operational Test and Evaluation.

That view was shared by top officials from the three services that are depending on the F-35 to freshen their air combat fleet, on average the oldest in the nation’s history.

Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, which expects to buy more than half – 1,763 – of the 2,443 F-35s the Pentagon plans to obtain, said the new fighter was “essential to ensure we can provide that air superiority” that has prevented a single U.S. ground troop casualty since the Korean War. With potential adversaries developing new advanced aircraft, Welsh said, “the Air Force needs the F-35A to ensure we can keep the air battle an away game. “It is the only conceivable program” to do that.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said the carrier-capable F-35C is a “really key part of our future” and will bring an “essential and unique set of capabilities for our air wings.”

“We need the stealth, we need the advanced electronic warfare capability” and its ability to collect and share intelligence, Greenert said. “The F-35C is designed to provide the capabilities we need.”

But, Greenert added, the Navy needed the Block 3F software, “an arresting hook that is reliable,” and a helmet that works. The admiral was referring to the fact that the tailhook on the initial model of the F-35C failed to catch the thick cables that bring an aircraft to a stop on an aircraft carrier’s short landing deck, and the pilot’s helmet was unable to provide the clear view of aircraft performance and external conditions required for combat operations.

And, Greenert said, “I need to know how much it will cost to maintain” the aircraft once it is in the fleet.

That was one of the key unknowns identified by Bogdan and other program officials.

Gen. John Paxton, the assistant Marine Corps commandant, said the short takeoff, vertical landing capability of the F-35B, which can operate from large deck amphibious assault ships and from small, crude land bases will double the number of aircraft-capable ships the Navy has and can put fighter aircraft in close support of ground Marines.

The Marines need the F-35 badly because it would replace their F/A-18s, EA-6Bs and AV-8Bs, all of which are at or over their expected service life.

In the first panel before the committee, Kendall and Bodgan acknowledged the major problems with the F-35 program due to excessive “concurrency,” which means the program began production of supposedly operational aircraft before flight testing has worked out all the kinks in the design – a shortcut Kendall has in the past called “acquisition malpractice.”

They agreed that the program has made significant progress since it was drastically revamped and production was slowed. The design now is stable, production processes have improved, unit costs are coming down and the flight test program is providing reams of data that will make it possible to provide better information to continue to improve and to develop ways to reduce the cost to sustain the jets once they are in service.


  • ziggy1988

    Ah, these witnesses uttered such ignorant garbage! It’s ridiculousness is rivalled only by Obama’s cretinous proposal made earlier today in Berlin to further cut America’s nuclear deterrent by a whopping one third and by his pie in the sky fantasies of a non-nuclear world.

    The panelists claimed that “there is no alternative to the F-35” and that the JSF will meet the military’s needs.

    The truth is the contrary: there are numerous alternatives to the F-35 both at the high and the low end of the spectrum, and the F-35 will MISERABLY fail to meet the military’s needs.

    But first, what are those needs?

    The Air Force, having prematurely killed F-22 production at a woefully insufficient 187 aircraft, needs to win air superiority and to conduct short- and long-range strike missions in contested airspace.

    The Navy also needs to conduct strike missions and win air superiority to protect its carriers from aircraft carrying cruise missiles.

    The Marines want an STOVL strike platform.

    At the high end of the threat spectrum, the miilitary needs to win air superiority, and conduct strike missions, in hotly contested airspace where the opponent will have advanced fighters and air defense systems and thus the ability to seriously contest air superiority. It must also provide air sovereignty over the US (usually Alaska) and Canada and to intercept incoming Russian bombers (a common sight these days) at long distance.

    At the low end, the military will sometimes need to conduct strike missions against insurgents, terrorists, and primitive nation states unable to contest control of the air.

    Measured against each and every one of these needs, the F-35 is an abject, embarrassing failure, even without taking its giant costs into account:

    1) The F-35 lacks the range, persistence, and missile payload to be a useful interceptor for national air defense missions over the US and Canada, and with a single engine would unnecessarily put the lives of US and allied pilots at risk.
    2) The F-35 lacks the degree of stealthiness (low observability) to survive in airspace defended by modern Russian and Chinese air defense systems, or even upgraded legacy Soviet systems like the SA-5, SA-6, and SA-11/17.
    3) The F-35 lacks the degree of stealthiness, speed, altitude, maneuverability, and missile payload to seriously compete with, let alone defeat, modern Russian and Chinese fighters like the Flanker family and the J-10 – let alone the PAK-FA and the J-31. It’s too slow, too heavy, too sluggish, too unmaneuverable, and can carry only 4 air to air missiles, while Flankers can carry 11-12.
    4) The F-35 is too expensive and overbuilt for low-tech missions against insurgents, too vulnerable to small arms fire, and requires long runways, thus limiting the number of airfields it can operate from.

    The F-35 will not meet ANY of the military’s needs. It’s utterly useless for any of its missions. It’s too inferior for high-tech missions, and too expensive and overbuilt for low-tech COIN missions.

    Contrary to the panelists’ false claims, there are MANY alternatives to the F-35. In fact, it is the F-35 that is useless and needlessly sucking defense dollars.

    For high-tech missions against opponents who have advanced fighters and/or air defense systems, like China, Russia, Venezuela, or Syria, you need highly stealthy F-22 air superiority fighters (in greater numbers than the present one) and highly stealthy long range bombers – like the bomber the USAF is now developing.

    For low-tech missions, you can use any nonstealthy legacy aircraft: F-15Es, F-16s, F/A-18s, A-10s, drones, B-52s, you name it. Any of these aircraft can do the job better and cheaper in low-tech environments than the F-35.

    The F-35 is utterly useless and redundant. There is NOTHING it can do that cannot be done better by the F-22, the B-2, and the NGB in high-tech environments, or by any number of legacy aircraft of any type in low-tech environments.

    Last but not least, the usefulness of ALL short-range aircraft – stealthy or not stealthy, but the latter even more so – will be very limited in future conflicts (at least in their opening days), because their forward bases (on which they are totally dependent) will certainly come under heavy ballistic and/or cruise missile attack, possibly even with WMD warheads. And yet, all short-range aircraft are totally dependent on in-theater bases.

    Thus, the ONLY American aircraft capable of operating in any enemy airspace from day one of the conflict until its end will be stealthy long range strike aircraft – i.e. the B-2, the NGB, and the stealthy drone that the Navy is now developing. THOSE aircraft are the future of America’s (and the world’s) combat aviation – NOT the F-35 and NOT nonstealthy legacy aircraft.

    • george

      Agreed. Not to mention the lack of super maneuverability and low top speed (about 500mph slower than the competition). One expert said it can’t fight, it can’t run and it can’t hide. Another said the rivals would have no difficulty in defeating the F35, quote, “it would be like clubbing baby seals”.

      • Ctrot

        “one expert said” “another said”

        Nothing like good sources to back up your arguments huh?

        • george

          I take your point. Here are the references.

          “Clubbed like baby seals”– Stephen Trimble.Trimble is a respected, award-winning aerospace journalist for Flight International.

          The second quote is from Sydney Freedberg of breaking defence who quoted “the words of one expert it can’t fight, it can’t hide and it can’t run” but did not say who the expert was.

          • george

            The F35 is not really a 5th gen fighter. In my understanding a 5th gen fighter has to be highly stealthy from all aspects, be super maneuverable and be able to super cruise without after burners. The F35 can’t. It also has other significant failings.

            The closest I have ever coming to being a pilot was 2 hours training and being shown victory rolls. I can only repeat the words of others. I hope for the sake of the West that the sensor fusion is going to be all they say it is because in other respects it does not look good.

  • TerryTee

    There is a Cost Effective Alternative, but It’s not a US Design, but is neither was the Harrier Jump Jet. It’s the Saab Gripen NG. It Supper Cruises at Mach 1.2 ( F-35 Doesn’t ) it can take off and land on any 2 lane roadway that is 800 meters long, can be refueled and rearmed by 5 guys from a truck in 10 Minutes, carries 14,400 Ibs of Ordinance, has advanced AESA radars, highly advanced IRST, has a 4000 km range, with supersonic drop tanks, is being developed for Carriers ( Sea Gripen ) by the UK and Saab which started in Sept. of 2011. Cost about $5-6000.00 per flight hour compared to ( 32K for Junk Strike Fighter ). And cost around $ 70 Million a piece. The list is long and lengthy. It could be built here in the US.

    • Lop_Eared_Galoot

      If the tooling for the F-22 has been destroyed, that is a major expense to recover. Even if it has been conserved for purposes of maintenance or what have you, there may have to be considerable modifications made to render it a useful followon to the F-35 (F135 integration and bigger bomb bays for instance).
      The JAS-39, even in the E/NG variant, has a combat radius of under 550nm. Which is still good for an aircraft of it’s class, but not even close to what is needed to protect carriers in the -detection phase- (2-3,000nm) of an attack by ASBM. While it has decent enough observables performance for a conventional airframe, the canards alone ensure it will never be a true LO design. Adding TVC to make possible the removal of the canards is not something that will be easily integrated without major weight gain in the back of the jet. Making the 10% structural margin necessary for TVC on the Raptor required us to toss thrust reversing and accept huge bloom in backend weight. This is why, along with boom-burn issues, the F-35 doesn’t have the capability.
      The F-15SE-X is a joke, putting two missiles inside the CFT and canting the tails outwards _will not_ make the jet stealthy, not even close. Better to invest in standoff missiles like the JASSM-ER than to pretend it offers anything we need to see more of.
      Given a considerable vulnerability, already proven, twice, over Iraq and Iran, to Cyber Attack, the MQ-9 series UAV is still superior to the AT-6C or AT-16 platforms for both endurance and altitude performance with any given warload. If you want to go down in the weeds, that’s your business but without a TADIRCM, it’s a losers proposition in a <300 knot airframe. The first shoulderfire weapon in the theater and you'll be right back where we were with the LARA OV-10. The Six Hour loiter @ 200nm is also deceptive. In the case of the SuTuc, that ability only comes with THREE tanks, which automatically sterilizes the centerline for the FLIR turret and removes even basic PGM like APKWS and DAGR. For Texan II, the variables are a little different, thanks to four wet wing pylons but here you are running up against wing and powerloading constraints which effect flying qualities (it's a tiny airframe with considerable torque vulnerabilities).
      The best solution to the Chinese Air-Sea threat is to not get in their business. Much as we don't appreciate people nosing their way into our Western Hemisphere hegemony, so too do the Chinese probably believe in their own right to superpower dominance of their neighborhood.
      Where this hands off approach effects trade from other East Asian powers or Allies, the best method is to shut down Chinese Maritime Trade as ports and transfer chokes with submarines and mines.
      Where they shift towards interior ground transport systems as the 'Silk Route II' trains and highway network, you are better off using carrier capable hypersonic strike platforms with roughly half the range capabilities of the Falcon TAV (in case the Chinese manage to hack the database on that too…).
      Where you are -forced- inshore for whatever reasons, the best route is deep VLS stacks of ERAM as SM-6, aeroballistic cruise (1,000nm in 15 minutes) and a major shift towards DEW off smaller hulls which can be swarmed at need or remain dispersed to defeat targeting.
      The future of manned airpower in a DEW age dominate by increasingly powerful HPM/HERF and lasers in a thousand flavors is one of ever greater standoff so that the threat has to expand their air defense grid to unmanageable degrees.
      That kind of cross-timezone skip bombing capability, with adequate remote-area industrial target reach-in on a state as deep as China, can only come with hypersonics.
      The cost of which will make LO look positively cheap.
      Frankly, the biggest danger to our immediate defense posture is two fold:
      1. Info Dominance.
      We _must_ resecure our defense industrial databases by whatever means necessary, starting with expulsions of whoever is 'bridging the moat' of non-network connected computer systems.
      2. Consolidation.
      We do not need four air forces in this country. We have common training pipes but not common designs with common basing mode capabilities. This is critical as I believe we are facing an economic as currency devaluation crisis of unimaginable proportions, the consequences of which will be a halving of our tactical airpower system. Which means that jets which can only land on runways will be out. And pilots who need special training to be carrier rated will have to be replaced by automation to bring USAF and USN inventories into common availability, based on A2AD theater conditions.
      If we are looking at a 500-750 tactical aircraft as a 'total force' contraction, the F-35 will have to be cancelled because the F-35Cs drag renders it incapable of even viable self-defense air combat and the F-35B lacks the radius to be safe in keeping the carrier groups stood off from high level threats.
      NGAD as F/A-XX may have to be considered, even if it is only a repackaging of the F-22/F-35 avionics and powerplant technology.
      Just as important however will be the need to purchase a generic continental air defense and training platform, probably COTS, along the lines of the T-50, for both day to day tactical training (use network simulation of sensors and EW) and (4 of 18 aircraft per squadron) as a fully equipped ground alert intercept force.
      With the notion that a 3,000-5,000 dollar CPFH is essential to maintaining some degree of readiness while conserving whatever GTW force we manage to retain (F-22A/F-35A silverbullets) until F/A-XX can come online, these may well be the largest force component in a revamped military that is NOT globally oriented.
      At least not as a tactical airpower projector.
      Folks, the future belongs to DEW and Hunting Weapons as well as Cyber. Subsonic or even low end Supersonic performance is not going to be sufficient to keep our pilots safe.

      • TerryTee

        They saved the tooling for the F-22, it would take about $200 Million to put it back together, which was figured in the above break down.

      • ssn21seawolf

        t50? hahaha the best is m346….

  • ELP

    —“We need the stealth, we need the advanced electronic warfare capability” and its ability to collect and share intelligence, Greenert said. “The F-35C is designed to provide the capabilities we need.”—- None of that is true.

  • ELP

    —-and at the hearing Brookings’ O’Hanlon argued for a force of only about 1,250 to meet the high-end threats —– The F-35 is not up for “high-end threats”

  • Nicky

    They say their’s no alternative to the F-35, how come their is the F-16 in block 60 E/F, F-15 Silent Eagle and the F/A-18 Super Hornet E/F international roadmap. It’s clear their are alternatives to the F-35.

  • Mehmet Emre

    In the meantime you can have a look at some great F-35 photos :

    F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Pictures

  • toms

    the F-22 was beaten badly by Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon. So imaging how badly the F-35 will be beaten.

    Matters little as America is finished anyway.

  • Mithat

    Here are some great HD photos. See F-35 closer:

    F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Pictures