A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the F-35 Store
The F-35 Store is over in a seldom seen corner of the Pentagon and if it was a vegetable, it would be broccoli. No one likes broccoli and yet it exists. The same can be said for the F-35 fighter jet, presumed replacement for the F-16 and the most expensive boondoggle in military history.
It all began a very long time ago
The world was a simpler place then.
The F-16 fighter jet was developed in the mid 1970s. You filled it with jet fuel, hit the starter-button and it was ready to fly. Once off the ground, it flew at twice the speed of sound, could carry 15 different bombs, including two nuclear weapons and was able to shoot down enemy aircraft with five varieties of air-to-air missiles. Even on a bad-hair-day it could knock out ground targets with four different air-to-ground missiles that included two separate flavors of anti-ship missiles.
The F-16 was a sweetheart but the military, bless their little mid-life crises, yearned for a trophy wife.
Trophy wives are very, very expensive
As the famous Packard automobile ad advised, “ask the man who owns one.”
Never more true than with the courtship of the F-35, the world’s first two trillion-dollar aircraft. A trillion, for those of us unaccustomed to this new economy we live in, is a thousand-billion. A single billion is a thousand-million. Many zeroes are involved.
Do not try to contemplate such a number without adult supervision.
Like many wayward love-affairs, it seemed simple at the beginning
A harmless little flirtation, eyes meeting across the room and no one will be hurt. How could the needed upgrade of a straightforward military plane possibly come between the two of us in our innocence and lust?
Ah well, ask the man who owns a trophy wife.
A relatively affordable F-16 replacement was available and technologically possible, but we wanted stealth in this relationship. A plane that was a lovely lady and could fly under the radar.
And that might have worked, but jealousy set in
Suddenly everyone wanted their own trophy wife. The Navy needed carrier-capable planes, the Marines thought vertical-liftoff was cool and the horribly wrong-headed decision was made to share this trophy wife.
That’s simply not done in polite society, but the Pentagon aimed to do it. That’s what happens when you have 900 generals all cooped up in one building, fretting over another star on their shoulder.
And so the wheels came off, as misguided wheels will do
The kids (Lockheed martin and Northrop Grumman) knew mom and dad were in trouble over at the Pentagon and what might have been an orderly and somewhat sane divorce turned nasty.
Simultaneous divorces in programs and weapons systems is cripplingly expensive. Everyone wanted everything and approvals were incremental, so the Air Force trophy wife was blonde, the Navy brunette and the Marines got a redhead, as Marines always will.
How didst thee fail me? Let me count the ways
This sneaky-beautiful F-35 packs only half the armament of an F-16 and can't fly at twice the speed of sound like an F-16. In fact, it comes with what amounts to a warning label on its control panel marking supersonic flight as "for emergency use only." Really? That must be reassuring when you have an enemy plane hot on your tail.
Then there’s the problem with switches. Touchscreen rather than toggles or rocker switches, but this is not a Tesla. You touch the icon for drop landing gear and 20 percent of the time it doesn’t respond. Belly-land a $100 million plane? Not on my performance-rating, thank you very much.
But it gets worse. The heat coating on the engine's rotor blades fails at a rate that leaves 5 to 6 percent of the F-35 fleet parked on the tarmac at any given time, awaiting not just engine repairs, but total replacement. Then there's the canopy. Seems F-35 canopies "delaminate" and so many of them failed that the Pentagon has had to fund an entirely new canopy manufacturer to make replacements.
Did we talk about "stealth" capability, the founding purpose of the whole debacle? If you fly the thing too fast, the coating that makes the plane invisible to radar peels off, making the planes naked to enemy radar.
But fear not, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. has a solution
According to the Salon article, he announced last week that henceforth, the Pentagon is going to treat the F-35 as the "Ferrari" of the U.S. combat air fleet. "You don't drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our 'high end' fighter, we want to make sure we don't use it for the low-end fight," he said in a press conference on Feb. 17th.
Got it. Future wars restricted to Sundays. Otherwise, we'll just jump in our aging F-16's, so the Ferrari can be left in the garage waiting for good weather on Sunday.
The F-16 is a better plane anyway and we already own over 1200 of them.
Eisenhower warned us to beware the military-industrial complex and it seems we keep harping on the industrial side—the guys who make this stuff. But remember, it’s military-industrial he was harping about and a Pentagon that’s grown to 900 general officers and 25,000 personnel is way too complex to oversee, much less control.
The day before 9-11
Donald Rumsfeld, then George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, admitted the day before the 9-11 attack that the Pentagon was missing 2.3 trillion dollars from the old company books. Try running that past the IRS someday. They simply cannot account for it. The World Trade Center destruction swallowed that story.
Since then, there have been numerous attempts to square the books over there—none of them successful.
According to Bloomberg, The Pentagon made $35 trillion in accounting adjustments last year alone -- a total that’s larger than the entire U.S. economy and underscores the Defense Department’s continuing difficulty in balancing its books.
The latest estimate is up from $30.7 trillion in 2018 and $29 trillion in 2017, the first year adjustments were tracked in a concerted way, according to Pentagon figures and a lawmaker who’s pursued the accounting morass.
Military spending sucks over half the oxygen from our national budget
And can’t tell us where it went—not even for the world’s most expensive military aircraft, that pilots dare not fly. The trophy wife you can’t live with.
As a side-note: this 900-general-military-behemouth hasn’t won a war since WWII: truce in Korea, international embarrassment in Vietnam, stalemate in Iraq and the longest war ever fought in Afghanistan with our knickers in a twist and no honorable way home.
Image Credit: Salon.com