The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built

The Pentagon's $400 billion F-35 is running into turbulence just as deeper budget cuts loom

  • Share
  • Read Later
Dan Winters

(2 of 6)

House Republican leaders have started to speak of the military cuts as inevitable. President Obama has warned that without a new plan from Congress, there will be "tough decisions in the weeks ahead," like the recent announcement that an aircraft-carrier deployment to the Persian Gulf will be delayed to save money.

The sad irony is that cutting the F-35 at this point won't save much money in the near term, because the Pentagon recently pushed nearly $5 billion in F-35 contracts out the door. Yet sequester-mandated cuts will push both the purchase of additional planes and their required testing into the future with an inevitable result: the cost of each plane will rise even higher. Unfortunately, that won't be anything new for the F-35 Lightning II.

How Did We Get Here?

The single-engine, single-seat f-35 is a real-life example of the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Think of it as a flying Swiss Army knife, able to engage in dogfights, drop bombs and spy. Tweaking the plane's hardware makes the F-35A stealthy enough for the Air Force, the F-35B's vertical-landing capability lets it operate from the Marines' amphibious ships, and the Navy F-35C's design is beefy enough to endure punishing carrier operations.

"We've put all our eggs in the F-35 basket," said Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn. Given that, one might think the military would have approached the aircraft's development conservatively. In fact, the Pentagon did just the opposite. It opted to build three versions of a single plane averaging $160 million each (challenge No. 1), agreed that the planes should be able to perform multiple missions (challenge No. 2), then started rolling them off the assembly line while the blueprints were still in flux--more than a decade before critical developmental testing was finished (challenge No. 3). The military has already spent $373 million to fix planes already bought; the ultimate repair bill for imperfect planes has been estimated at close to $8 billion.

Back in 2002, Edward Aldridge, then the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, said the F-35 was "setting new standards for technological advances" and "rewriting the books on acquisition and business practices." His successor voiced a different opinion last year. "This will make a headline if I say it, but I'm going to say it anyway," Frank Kendall said. "Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done."

The Pentagon and its allies say the need for the F-35 was so dire that the plane had to be built as it was being designed. (More than a decade into its development, blueprints are changing about 10 times a day, seven days a week.) "The technological edge of the American tactical air fleet is only about five years, and both Russia and China are fielding fifth-generation fighters of their own," argues Tom Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "Preserving the cumulative quantity-quality advantage requires that the United States field a full fleet of fifth-generation fighters now."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6