The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built

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

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Dan Winters

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Others suggest that no nation is close to fielding weapons in sufficient quality and quantity to challenge U.S. air dominance anytime soon and that the rush to develop the F-35 was more internal than external. "There's always this sexual drive for a new airplane on the part of each service," says Tom Christie, the Pentagon's chief weapons tester from 2001 to 2005. "Persistent, urgent and natural."

The resulting bastard child was a compromise, not optimum for any one service but good enough for all three. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy liked its stubby design. The F-35C's squat fuselage puts its tailhook close to its landing gear (7 ft., compared with 18 on the F-18 it is replacing), making it tough to grab the arresting cable on an aircraft carrier. Its short range means aircraft carriers ferrying it into battle will have to sail close to enemy shores if the F-35C is to play a role. It can fly without lumbering aerial tankers only by adding external fuel tanks, which erases the stealthiness that is its prime war-fighting asset.

Cramming the three services into the program reduced management flexibility and put the taxpayer in a fiscal headlock. Each service had the leverage generated by threatening to back out of the program, which forced cost into the backseat, behind performance. "The Air Force potentially could have adopted the Navy variant, getting significantly more range and structural durability," says John Young Jr., a top Navy and Pentagon civilian official from 2001 to 2009. "But the Air Force leadership refused to consider such options."

Yet if the Navy, and Young, were upset with the Air Force, the Air Force was upset with the Marines. "This is a jobs program for Marine aviation," says retired general Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994. "The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong." He scoffs at the Marine demand for a plane that can land vertically, saying, "The idea of landing on a beach and supporting your troops close up from some improvised airfield, à la Guadalcanal, is not going to happen."

Focused on waging two post-9/11 wars, the Pentagon let the F-35 program drift as costs ballooned and schedules slipped for a decade. The Marines' F-35 was supposed to be capable of waging war in April 2010, the Air Force's in June 2011 and the Navy's in April 2012. In a break with Pentagon custom, there now is no such "initial operating capability" date for any of them; each is likely to be delayed several years.

Regardless of the plane's merit, the lawmakers pushing for it are hardly disinterested observers. The then 48 members of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, many of whom sit on key Pentagon-overseeing panels, pocketed twice as much as nonmembers in campaign contributions from the F-35's top contractors in the 2012 election cycle. Those lawmakers' constituents, in turn, hold many of the F-35 program's 133,000 jobs spread across 45 states. (F-35 builder Lockheed Martin says jobs will double once the plane enters full production.)

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