Inside The Pentagon's Trillion Dollar F-35 Embarrassment

Inside the Pentagon's Trillion Dollar F-35 Embarrassment

It's not news that the Pentagon's fated F-35 program is riddled with dilemmas. For more than a decade, it's bumped into roadblock after roadblock. When the planes aren't grounded, they're forbidden to fly in bad weather, combat missions or at night. Vanity Fair just published a lengthy look at just how bad a mess it is.

It's a frustrating read as it catalogues problem after problem with the program and the complicated politics that dictate its future. Perhaps refreshingly, the challenges laid out seem to stem not from corruption but the overwhelmingly complex task of making the Air Force, Marines and Navy happy while also doling out capital to as many congressional districts as possible, through spending on contractors.

Again, we already knew there were problems. But that doesn't make the specifics any easier to swallow. Vanity Fair's Adam Ciralsky walks through the challenges one-at-a-time. Problem number one: these planes are friggin' expensive:

According to the Government Accountability Office (G.A.O.), which is relatively independent, the price tag for each F-35 was supposed to be $US81 million when the program began in October 2001. Since that time, the price per plane has basically doubled, to $US161 million. Full-rate production of the F-35, which was supposed to start in 2012, will not start until 2019. The Joint Program Office, which oversees the project, disagrees with the G.A.O.'s assessment, arguing that it does not break out the F-35 by variant and does not take into account what they contend is a learning curve that will drive prices down over time. They say a more realistic figure is $US120 million a copy, which will go down with each production batch. Critics, like Winslow Wheeler, from the Project on Government Oversight and a longtime G.A.O. official, argue the opposite: "The true cost of the aeroplane -- when you cast aside all the bullshit -- is $US219 million or more a copy, and that number is likely to go up."

A lot of that money is supposed to go towards innovative new technology. Which brings us to problem number two: the innovative new technology doesn't work. Ciralsky goes over the fancy helmet-mounted displays that purportedly give the pilots x-ray vision:

Pierre Sprey… contends that, even if designers can deal with latency and jitter, the resolution of the video is "fatally inferior" compared with the human eye when it comes to confronting enemy aircraft. "Right from the start, they should have known there would be a huge computation problem and a huge resolution problem," says Sprey. "Why do drones shoot up wedding parties in Afghanistan? Because the resolution is so poor. That was knowable before the helmet was built." The helmet-mounted display, says Sprey, is "a total fuckup from start to finish."

Inside the Pentagon's Trillion Dollar F-35 Embarrassment

When they were lining everything up a decade ago, the government didn't spread out responsibility very well. Problem number three: the government's getting stuck with the bill again and again. Ciralsky quotes Gen. Christopher Bogdan who heads the Joint Strike Fighter program:

"Most of the risk on this program when we signed this contract in early 2001 was on the government squarely. Cost risk. Technical risk. Perfect example: in the development program, we pay Lockheed Martin whatever it costs them to do a particular task. And if they fail at that task, then we pay them to fix it. And they don't lose anything."

To be fair, the planes do fly, but they're far from combat ready. The F-35s have been on the disabled list for years, despite the $US1.5 trillion dollars that's being invested in the program. It's just one problem after another after another.

It's not just the generals running the program that are responsible, either. The politicians who approved funding for the fleet did their best to spread the Defence Department dollars around the country. Problem number four: politically minded spending does not build good aircraft. In fact, Ciralsky says it's quite the opposite:

The political process that keeps the Joint Strike Fighter airborne has never stalled. The program was designed to spread money so far and so wide -- at last count, among some 1400 separate subcontractors, strategically dispersed among key congressional districts -- that no matter how many cost overruns, blown deadlines or serious design flaws, it would be immune to termination. It was, as bureaucrats say, "politically engineered".

Now time will tell whether the F-35 will become the fighter jet for America's future -- they really are neatwhen they work! -- or just another political boondoggle. The Marines say they'll have their fleet combat ready by 2015, while the Air Force and Navy need a few more years. Then again, it wasn't long ago that they were saying the same thing about 2012. [Vanity Fair]

Inside the Pentagon's Trillion Dollar F-35 Embarrassment

Pictures: AP

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Comments

    Isn't that last pic of a plane breaking the sound barrier an F-22 ?

      Yes, definitely. The F-35 only has one jet engine and its air intakes are far less prominent

    That last photo isn't even an F-35, it's clearly an F-22 Raptor.

    Not a bad article, but that's an F-22 in the last photo...

    Bout time we backed out of this shemozzle, maybe Abbott can make his penny pinching ways work here and 'can' it...!

    Last edited 18/09/13 7:06 am

      It's something his mentor and hero lil jonny howard signed us up to, there's no way Abbott of all people will can it. I agree though, it does seriously need backing out of. Should never have been entered in to in the first place.

      Last edited 18/09/13 12:34 pm

        Dude I understand your point and I agree, not sure why you'd down vote this comment though, seems kinda petty considering you agree in principle....?

        Last edited 18/09/13 1:23 pm

      The problem there is that we still need a replacement for our aging birds (the FA-18s, the F-111s are already decommisioned). The JSF was to be the solution, it's just not delivering. There aren't many options out there, though I still think we should be talking to China and Russia about buying some Migs (mostly to piss off the US).

    The issue I have with the F-35 is that even after costing such immense amounts of money, it's still inferior to the F-15 in most respects...a Jet originally designed in the late '60s -_-

    They tried to make it a jack of all trades so they could sell it to every division, and it's just not very good at anything in particular. Mediocre stealth, mediocre manoeuvrability and a mediocre rate of climb (official numbers classified, but feedback hasn't been great). On top of that, the range, speed and thrust are not terribly impressive, and the armament is minimal unless you sacrifice the stealth.

    All it really has going for it is VTOL/STOL, small cross section and minor stealth capabilities, which could have been the basis for a superior design FOCUSing on those characteristics.

    not sure if its been mentioned yet but that last photo is an F22

    While I understand the problems associated with "politically engineered" spending like this (and it's news to me, but makes sense considering the world of politics), the thing that constantly surprises and dismays me about government contracts like this is that private enterprise always gets off scott-free.

    Somehow governments sign onto contracts where they burden all the risk. ALL of it! They promise to pay for a completed project; or a half-complete project; or if the project gets cancelled ... in all instances, there is zero risk for the corporation. In fact, it's actually in the corporation's interests to induce cost-overruns and delays so as to make hay while the sun shines. This is just as true of infrastructure projects in Australia as it is of military projects in America, and it really, REALLY gets my goat.

    So full of hate!!11oneoneeleven

      Fixed price contracts don't work well with projects that involve so much risk and technological development. I'm sure the defense contactors could provide a fixed price, but I'm also sure that that price would be significantly higher than even the (blown out) variable price. Would you rather pay 200m for something that was origianlly quoted at 100m, or a fixed (risk with contractor) price of 500m?

        What is the quote for then? Another contractor who quoted more accurately missed out on the job.

          This. Why bother with any kind of estimate if any estimate is going to be so inaccurate?

          To be fair, my understanding is that governments change their requirements and specifications from time to time and expect the contractor to keep up. So there's that. And a contract should have contingencies for when (not if) that happens, how to change the schedule and renegotiate prices, instead of renegotiating the whole contract. But a contractor should not be bearing effectively zero risk for failing to deliver on the adjusted requirements and budget.

      I agree.
      It should be "here's 200 million, deliver me a working avionics system".
      Instead, it's "make me an avionics system. Let me know when it's ready or if you want more money". Absolutely nothing to motivate the contractor to deliver the goods on time.

    Be cheaper if the US and Australia bought the Chinese knockoff.

    Lockheed can't be happy about this having their name front and centre (even though the fingers aren't being pointed at them). They have proven time and time again that they can build unparalleled futuristic (and reliable) stuff that has been deployed actively over decades.

    I'm sure once a few more rival powers begin to catch up some common sense might prevail.

    Had to check and make sure the author of article wasn't Luke Hopelesswell, we know how accurate he is with his journalism/fact checking when it comes to anything other than Apple.

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