A $1 trillion plane problem

by Eric Baker ([email protected]) 206 views 

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a collaboration between the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and Talk Business & Politics. Dr. Eric Baker joined the UAFS faculty in 2008 and has a doctorate in political science from the University of Florida. Baker previously taught at the University of Richmond in Virginia and East Carolina University in North Carolina.

Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics or the administration of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

The Pentagon is set to purchase several hundred of the newest combat aircraft, the F-35, or Lightning II. This so-called “block buy” is being pushed by the plane’s contractors, even though it has not finished development, has deficiencies that must be corrected and has proven that it’s little better than the planes it is supposed to replace.

The F-35 is designed to be a joint service aircraft for the Marines, Air Force and the Navy. It will have stealth capability. It will replace a number of different aircraft, such as the F-16, A-10, and the F/A 18. It is designed to be the services primary air superiority fighter, and the principle ground attack aircraft. The Marines will get the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version of the F-35, ultimately replacing the Harrier jump jet it now uses.

It should give one pause to consider that this plane is meant to be all things to all services. Invariably, some things had to be sacrificed to appeal to all services. A Swiss army knife is useful for opening letters and beer bottles, but not for chopping wood.

In its air to air role, The F-35 has been called a “dog.” It’s overweight and underpowered. In a head to head (simulated) fight with an F-16, the F-35 was unable to reliably defeat the older plane. The F-16 was flying with external fuel tanks, which would cause more drag, but the F-35 was flying “clean” with no under wing tanks. If the new plane cannot defeat a plane developed in the 1970s, with the deliberate advantage given to it, it will be easy meat for the latest generation of Russian fighters.

Furthermore, it’s knife that’s dangerous to the user. If a pilot ejects and he or she is under 136 lbs., they could be killed, according to a DOD report.

Though this Swiss knife has shown it can’t chop wood, it costs a lot. The Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional watch dog on government spending, estimates that the F-35 will cost taxpayers $1 trillion over its service life. The GAO estimates that the annual operating costs of the Lightening II will be over $9 billion more than the annual costs of four planes in the U.S. inventory combined. (See the full GAO report here.)

The expense is due in part to the Buck Rogers technology that is going into it. Perhaps the most bizarre example is a helmet that allows the pilot to see 360 degrees; look down and he sees the ground, not the floor. It is reported to cost $400,000 apiece.

It may turn out that the bugs can be worked out, and the Lightning will turn out well. But we must ask important questions. Is it wise to purchase fewer aircraft at greater expense, especially if it can’t do a better job than what we have? Does it make sense to continually produce weapons that are increasingly more expensive, such that a loss of one plane means the loss of $122 million of taxpayer money?

This is the military-industrial complex run amok. It’s time to rein it in.