The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be the plane that could do it all. Fast, stealthy and heavily armed, it would dominate the skies while supporting American troops on the ground. Touted as the “fifth-generation fighter,” it was going to revolutionize aerial combat.
Now, in 2018, Lockheed is still working out bugs in the system, and many independent estimates put the total price tag at well over $1 trillion. It’s now quite possibly the most expensive weapons project in the history of warfare. The high price has put its fighting ability under the microscope. For years, many analysts have suggested the jet could potentially weaken American military readiness rather than strengthen it. Its detractors have dubbed it “the plane that ate the Pentagon.”
The plane officially conducted its final flight test last week on April 12. Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of the F-35 program Greg Ulmer called it the “most comprehensive, rigorous and the safest developmental flight test program in aviation history.” Despite the fanfare, the most recent iteration of an annual report by the Pentagon’s top testing office determined the planes continue to have serious performance and safety issues and called the proposed delivery timeline “not executable due to inadequate test resources.”
The final flight test came just after Reuters reported that the Pentagon has halted F-35 deliveries in light of a dispute with Lockheed over who will cover the repair costs for several planes found to have a production error that resulted in corrosion where panels were fastened to the airframe. However, this latest setback isn’t likely to seriously impede the program. A web of political interests and bureaucratic maneuvering has protected the troubled program for years.
“We’re essentially putting almost all of our aviation eggs into one basket,” Dan Grazier, a fellow at the Strauss Military Reform Project, tells Playboy. “The F-35 is designed to replace the F-16 and the A-10, and to a certain extent, the F-15. So basically all the small combat aircraft that aren’t bombers are going to be replaced by this very flawed system.”
Hackers could ground the entire fleet...You couldn't possibly send this thing to war if you don't even dare test it in peace-time.
But a decade later, energized by a Reagan-era optimism and a ballooning budget, DARPA was convinced it could succeed where the U.S.-German effort had failed. DARPA pitched the project to the Marine Corps. For years, the Marines had flown hand-me-down aircraft from the Navy. That changed in the ‘70s when the Corps procured Harrier Jets—another controversial vertical take-off plane. Marine commanders instantly loved the idea of a newer, faster VTOL jet and immediately signed for it. However, the prospects of a supersonic VTOL aircraft hadn’t changed much since the ‘70s—the consensus being it was a pipe dream.
“What you need to go supersonic is the dead opposite of what you need to lift an airplane vertically off the ground…That was knowable in 1984. That wasn't arcane knowledge. Any airplane designer could tell you that,” explains Pierre Sprey, a former Pentagon analyst who worked on the F-16 and A-10 jet programs. “DARPA didn't want to accept that. They were so keen on being these great aerodynamic innovators. What they did was they went black. They went to a classified program so nobody could critique what they were doing.”
DARPA silently approached Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, which eagerly took on the project. Along the way stealth features became part of the program—further complicating the design. “Lockheed basically bullshitted their way through all that and convinced DARPA that it was all very doable, and that the stealth made it even sexier,” Sprey explains. “Of course, the reason Lockheed did that was basically to give them a monopoly position because they had far more experience in doing stealth than any other manufacturer.”
By the 1990s, the project went public and other companies were invited to compete for the contract. Lockheed, having a head start on the competition, easily won the lucrative contract. Since then, the development has been exceptionally rocky and a lot has changed—after winning the competition, Lockheed ditched its prototype and essentially started from scratch.
Ultimately, only the version designed for the Marines—the F-35B—actually does vertical take-offs. The Air Force and Navy versions do conventional runway take-offs. They have extra fuel in place of the massive fan used for vertical take-offs, but they retain the bulky frame and have relatively short wingspans.
They have spread out the subcontracts for the F-35 all over the country, probably 350 congressional districts. It’s virtually impossible to get an adequate number of votes in Congress to kill something like the F-35.
The planes were proving to be much heavier than predicted. By the late 2000s, designers made major modifications to account for the weight. “They removed some very important survivability features that they pasted in there,” Sprey explains. “Fire suppression, fire extinguishing systems were ripped out because they added weight. They were so desperate because the airplane was in so much trouble. They simply didn't pay any attention to the military consequences of doing all this.”
There have been several problems with engine fires. For instance, an official report about a 2014 engine fire at a Florida Air Force base noted that it was caused by a design flaw that testers had raised concerns about as early as 2007. However, it evidently didn’t become a priority until it nearly killed a pilot. Last year, the Air Force grounded the planes after several pilots began suffering from hypoxia at high altitudes.
America’s hottest airplane was certainly taking everyone’s breath away.
The drama over hypothetical battles the F-35 could fight has played out while American troops have spent years fighting real ones. During bloody firefights with insurgents, they regularly call on air support to gain an edge. Among the aircraft supporting them is the A-10 Warthog—a heavily armored plane that was designed specifically to provide close air support to forces on the ground with its formidable gatling cannon. The “hog” is wildly popular with soldiers and Marines. It’s also one of the planes the F-35 is set to replace.
Several analysts have questioned whether the F-35 can truly replace the A-10. The F-35 can’t slow to the speeds the A-10 does to loiter on a target, and it burns through its fuel much more quickly than the Warthog, forcing it to return to base much quicker. In 2013, Air Force brass attempted to divest from the A-10 and divert its budget and personnel toward the F-35. Several critics, including veterans, argued that depriving troops of the Warthog (still currently flying combat missions in Afghanistan) would cost American lives. It took a direct intervention from Congress to save the A-10 fleet from the scrapyard.
This year, the Pentagon’s testing office’s annual report noted that the F-35 continues to struggle hitting targets accurately with its 25mm cannon. The cannon has long had problems and was slated to be bug-free by 2019, but the persistent problems are raising doubts. Significantly, these problems are most noticeable in the Air Force F-35A, the model that’s supposed to replace the A-10.
“It’s definitely falling far short of its expected combat performance,” Grazier says of the F-35. “It’s basic things like that that you would think after 17 years of development they might have figured out by now, and they simply haven’t.”
One of the plane’s more unique (and controversial) features is ALIS, a cloud-based software system meant to streamline aircraft maintenance and operations. “This is a do-everything computer system that diagnoses the airplane,” Sprey explains. “Every time the airplane lands, you plug in, you download an incredible amount of data about every single sensor, every single hydraulic pump, every single stage of the engine—all that crap.”
In June 2017, a software update came with a series of bugs and glitches that caused a Marine squadron in Yuma, Arizona to ground its F-35s. Issues with the software have been a sticking point for a long time. Former Pentagon testing chief John Gilmore noted in a 2016 report that “each new version of software, while adding some new capability, failed to resolve all the deficiencies identified in earlier releases.”
Among the concerns is cybersecurity. The cloud contains highly classified information about mission data—including secret briefings, intelligence and target information. Hackers could snoop on that sensitive information. Other analysts have raised the possibility that enemy forces could use malware to disable the planes. “Even couch potato hackers can get into this system, and you can imagine what a really well-funded hacking effort by the Chinese and the Russians could do to this system,” says Sprey.
During his tenure, Gilmore pushed to have a “red team” of hackers to test ALIS for vulnerabilities. But ultimately only a handful of tests ever took place. “He wanted them unleashed with no limitations on the ALIS system because he knew how vulnerable it was,” says Sprey. “The Joint Project Office totally refused to do the tests. You know why? Because they were afraid that hackers could ground the entire fleet, and they couldn't stand not flying. They need to fly to train pilots and blah, blah, blah. They simply refused to do the test. That tells you immediately that you couldn't possibly send this thing to war if you don't even dare test it in peace-time, good Christ.”
Lockheed has been deeply guarded about ALIS. An October 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office found that F-35 units still didn’t have complete manuals or troubleshooting guides for their planes because officials hadn’t yet been able to reach a final deal with Lockheed about sharing technical data. That essentially makes military personnel dependent on Lockheed for tech support when something goes wrong. Several American allies that have also signed on to buy the F-35 have expressed concerns about ALIS, citing both cybersecurity and sovereignty concerns connected to giving Lockheed access to their data.
The anonymous pilot noted that he found the F-35 to be “substantially inferior” at dogfighting to 1980s vintage F-15E jets he had personally flown.
“The reason that there's no real concern about whether the airplanes really will work in war or not is because all the people at the level you’re talking about making those decisions are looking at jobs in industry,” says Sprey. “Every one of them knows that when he retires: a quarter million a year and a corner office, a bunch of stock options.”
Ironically, many of the reasons the F-35 has been allowed to fall so far behind schedule and overbudget are the same reasons it was supposed to be delivered quickly. It was a case of “concurrency” in which the weapon would be developed and produced simultaneously. It also keeps all parties involved invested in the project—after the money has already been spent. “They're busy cranking out airplanes that will have to be completely rebuilt, by the way,” says Sprey. “These are airplanes that are guaranteed to crack and have structural failures, and to have electronics [that] break down all the time. They're cranking 'em out knowing that they're gonna have to retrofit them with fixes that they haven't developed yet.”
The F-35 is far from the first concurrent weapon program. The practice has been harshly criticized for decades, a report by the GAO in 1990 argued the Pentagon “can no longer afford to concurrently develop and produce high-cost advanced weapons systems without knowing early in the acquisition process whether the systems have the desired capabilities.” Nevertheless, it remains common practice.
It’s ultimately Congress that controls the purse strings to fund a program like the F-35. That’s why Lockheed and other contractors have generously donated to candidates in both parties—as well as set up facilities in key congressional districts. “They have spread out the subcontracts for the F-35 all over the country, so it’s built in 46 different states, probably 350 congressional districts,” explains Grazier. “It’s virtually impossible really to get an adequate number of votes in Congress to kill something like the F-35 because, from the beginning, the creators of the program designed it to be that way.”
One notable subcontract went to Iowa-based Rockwell Collins, which produces the helmet for the F-35. The helmet has a hi-tech interface and is designed to plug into a complex system of cameras on the F-35 that (in theory) gives the pilot more visibility than any previous system. It’s been criticized for being excessively bulky, and there are real concerns the heavy helmets could snap pilots’ necks in the event of an emergency ejection. The helmets also have a steep price tag at $600,000 each. The very premise of the helmet is also hotly debated.
“Despite all the technological advances, the human eyeball is still the absolute best visual instrument that’s yet been discovered,” Grazier argues. “But to give the pilot the ability to use his own eyeballs to see what’s going on around him doesn’t make money for Rockwell Collins. Rockwell Collins gets a lot of money if we design in a subsystem for an F-35 where a pilot needs to use this really complicated camera system to provide images, that are really far less resolution than his own eyeballs, to get a good look at the world around them.”
Bernie Sanders was outspoken about the Pentagon’s lavish spending during his 2016 bid for the presidency. While challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, he often brought up her vote to invade Iraq while casting himself as a more dovish alternative who would fight the establishment.
“In very clever ways, the military-industrial complex puts plants all over the country, so that if people try to cut back on our weapons system what they’re saying is you’re going to be losing jobs in that area,” Sanders said during a 2014 interview in New Hampshire. “We’ve got to have the courage to understand that we cannot afford a lot of wasteful, unnecessary weapons systems, and I hope we can do that.”
However, the Vermont senator’s commitment to fighting the military-industrial complex doesn’t seem to apply when that money is being spent in his home state. Sanders reportedly played a key role in convincing Lockheed Martin execs to place a research center in Burlington, Vermont as well as getting Air Force brass to assign several F-35s to an Air National Guard unit based at the Burlington airport.
In June 2015, David Axe, editor-in-chief of War is Boring, obtained a report written by a test pilot recounting that his F-35 had lost a dogfight against an F-16 during a mock battle. Axe reported on the pilot’s findings and shortly after posted the leaked report in full for his readers. The pilot wrote that “even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement.”
The anonymous pilot noted that he found the F-35 to be “substantially inferior” at dogfighting to 1980s vintage F-15E jets he had personally flown. The release of the report sent shockwaves throughout the defense industry—it even managed to cause Lockheed stock to briefly fluctuate.
The F-35 Joint Program Office quickly issued an official statement asserting that War Is Boring’s reporting "does not tell the entire story,” noting that the test in question didn’t use the latest version of the F-35. The release also argued that the F-35 is so advanced that it won’t ever need to dogfight, asserting that "the F-35's technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual 'dogfighting' situations.”
(Note: the author of this piece is a contributing editor at War Is Boring)
However, then-candidate Donald Trump was paying attention. During an October 2015 interview, he told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt "I do hear that [the F-35 is] not very good. I'm hearing that our existing planes are better. And one of the pilots came out of the plane, one of the test pilots, and said this isn't as good as what we already have…so when I hear that, immediately I say we have to do something, because you know, they're spending billions. This is a plane. There's never been anything like it in terms of cost."
In November 2016, as Trump soaked in his victory in the presidential race, the Canadian government under Justin Trudeau purchased 18 Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets as he followed through on a campaign promise to find a replacement for the country’s aging fleet of CF-18s. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to order 65 F-35s became increasingly controversial as the planes continued to be delayed. “Because [the CF-18s] were not replaced we now have a capability gap,” said Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan.
On December 12, 2016, Trump tweeted “the F-35 program and cost is out of control.” Ten days later, he tweeted “based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!” After the president-elect’s second tweet Lockheed’s stock value dropped more than $1 billion in minutes.
However, on January 30, 2017, Trump announced a “deal” with Lockheed Martin to reportedly trim $600 million from the F-35’s final price tag. But the projected savings were actually part of multi-year bulk purchases for the warplane that the government had been negotiating well before Trump took office. Since then, Trump has learned to love the F-35.
While visiting troops responding to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Trump told troops "Amazing job. So amazing that we're ordering hundreds of millions of dollars of new airplanes for the Air Force, especially the F-35…you can't see it. Literally you can't see it. It's hard to fight a plane you can't see right?” He has repeatedly praised “that beautiful F-35" and frequently makes statements that suggest he thinks the radar-evading stealth plane is literally invisible.
“His initial instincts on these programs are actually pretty good. Questioning the F-35 is a good instinct.” Grazier tells Playboy. “[But] the information that reaches him is very filtered. He talks to generals and the Secretary of Defense, and they’ll feed him the information that they want him to see. I think there’s a lot of that going on.”
In a very fundamental sense, what makes it so expensive is that was the mission. The mission was to send a lot of money to the contractor.
On March 7, Vice Admiral Mathias Winter—the current head of the F-35 Joint Program Office—told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee that continued development and support for the plane would cost in the neighborhood of $16 billion annually over the next seven years. “[This] is an astonishingly high amount and, as far as I am aware, greatly exceeds any cost figures previously provided to Congress,” Rep. Nicola Tsongas told the admiral.
The Pentagon’s independent cost unit found that it could cost as much as $1.1 trillion to keep the planes flying and maintained through 2070—with up to half of that money being spent on contractor support. An internal analysis released after Winter’s testimony determined that the Air Force may need to subtract 590 fighters from the total 1,763 it plans to order if the service can’t find ways to trim the planes’ upkeep costs.
But even with a few cuts, nothing can stop the F-35 from being delivered—and there’s still a lot of people happy about that. Among them are Vermont politicians. At a press conference earlier this year, Vermont governor Phil Scott told reporters he’s “all in for the F-35” and thinks “it will be extremely beneficial for Vermont in its entirety, as part of the economy and part of the economic opportunity in the future for Vermont.”
“There were huge cost overruns, you might not like the process, you may not like the amount of money that we’re spending,” Bernie Sanders told a local NBC affiliate in a March 29 interview. “Those are legitimate concerns, but right now the F-35 is the plane. And if it does not come to Vermont it will go to another community. And for many, many reasons I think the National Guard deserves to have that plane here.”
The U.S. has already sunk a fortune into the plane. The program has created thousands of jobs across the country. The F-35 is too big to fail. But regardless of whether the plane can actually win battles, Sprey argues that it has successfully done what it was built to do. “In a very fundamental sense, what makes it so expensive is that was the mission. The mission was to send a lot of money to the contractor,” he argues. “It was simply to replace the previous airplanes and to be more expensive.”