It’s possible for big national defense projects to succeed. But everything has to go together perfectly.
As an example of a success, consider the Navy’s latest aircraft carriers, named for presidents Gerald Ford and John Kennedy. Each cost more than $13 billion, but both will serve as floating airports for years. They’ll join older carriers in projecting American power around the world.
But it isn’t easy to succeed with such large projects. Consider another weapon system that can’t seem to get out of the gate: The Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) from Lockheed Martin (LMT).
It was first drawn up in the 1990s as a jet that could do it all: land vertically on land or horizontally on ships, drop bombs on targets or engage with enemy fighters. It needed to be fast, nimble and invisible. It ended up as none of those things.
Instead, the demands led to delays. Making the plane invisible to radar made it too heavy. The weapon systems didn’t work well enough for it to be deployed as a force-projection tool. The plane stayed on the ground while other weapon systems, such as the older Air Force F-15s, attacked enemy positions.
In fact, when the JSF finally made its “combat debut” last year in Afghanistan (after American forces had been fighting there for two decades) it was used to attack a cache of enemy weapons. That is: piles of rifles and grenades. “For a target as insignificant as this, a Predator drone would’ve done just fine, or perhaps it could’ve been punted to an Afghan Air Force pilot” as a training mission, notes commentator Paul Szoldra.
But even if the JSF gets into combat, it’s fated to let us all down. An internal Pentagon report last year showed the F-35 may age out of service decades earlier than expected. It reported that some Marine JSFs may have a service life of just 2,100 hours, instead of the 8,000 hours they were supposed to provide.
Yet the entire program seems to be too big to fail. While the F-35 keeps missing its targets, lawmakers and the Pentagon are planning to buy many more. “In recent years the Pentagon has been buying jets in greater quantities in order to get the average price down,” the Washington Post reported this year. “They recently finalized a $34 billion agreement that defense officials described as ‘the largest procurement in the Department’s history.’” The deal would add 478 F-35s to the military’s collection. Whether Lockheed can manage to deliver any working jets remains an open question.
Part of the problem goes back to the testing phase. The Pentagon bought new F-35s before the existing ones had been through their shakeout trials. That meant it had to keep spending millions to retrofit fighters that were already in service with the latest upgrades and software.
Even retrofitting is more difficult than it should be, though. Lockheed is dragging its feet about turning over certain intellectual property, which has caused a more than two-year delay in getting upgrades.
“We don’t need all the data, but the data that we need, it’s important that we pursue it,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick tells Aviation Week. Ironically, this may be for the best. After all, The National Interest explains that, “The F-35’s ground-based ALIS logistical system, intended to streamline reporting and implement predictive maintenance, has for years remained buggy to the point of dysfunctionality — requiring constant manual inputs and workarounds when automated systems failed to do what they were supposed to do.” Still, it would be nice to think that the military got software for the trillion dollars it’s invested in the F-35. Sort of like getting Windows 10 with a new PC.
It’s sad to admit, but the F-35 probably cannot be saved. It’s time for the military to look for alternatives that can keep us safe in the 21st Century.
Dan Perkins is an author of both thrillers and children’s books. He appears on over 1,100 radio stations. Mr. Perkins appears regularly on international TV talk shows, he is current events commentator for seven blogs, and a philanthropist with his foundation for American veterans, Songs and Stories for Soldiers, Inc. More information about him, his writings, and other works are available on his website, DanPerkins.guru. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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