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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J. Michael Gilmore, Christie's successor as the Pentagon's top weapons tester, reported in January that all three versions will be slower and less maneuverable than projected. Weight-saving efforts have made the plane 25% more vulnerable to fire. Only one of three F-35s flown by the U.S. military, he added, was ready to fly between March and October.

Such problems inevitably lead to delays, which relentlessly drive up the price. "Lockheed Martin and the F-35 program have not shown any kind of sensitivity to costs," says Richard Aboulafia, who tracks military aviation for the Teal Group, which analyzes the defense business. "That makes for a vulnerable program."

And dark clouds are gathering. Pentagon and Lockheed officials know they need to sell hundreds of F-35s to a dozen nations to reduce the cost of each U.S. plane. But Canada announced in December that it is considering alternatives to its planned buy of 65 F-35s after an independent analysis pegged their lifetime cost at nearly $46 billion, roughly double an earlier estimate (the estimated U.S. lifetime cost: $1.5 trillion). Australia recently suggested it wants 24 more St. Louis--built Boeing F-18s, almost guaranteeing a reduction in its planned purchase of up to 100 F-35s.

The Right Kind of Plane?

While debate swirls around how to build the F-35 right, there's a more important question: Is it the right kind of plane for the U.S. military in the 21st century? The F-35 is a so-called fifth-generation fighter, which means it is built from the ground up to elude enemy radar that could be used to track and destroy it. Stealth was all the rage in military circles when the Pentagon conceived the F-35. But that was well before the drone explosion, which makes the idea of flying a human through flak and missiles seem quaint. "The Air Force," Aboulafia says, "eagerly drank gallons of the fifth-generation purple liquid."

Improved sensors and computing are eroding stealth's value every day, says Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations. Eventually, he warns, they will give potential foes "actionable target information" on stealth platforms.

The Air Force feared "additional fourth-generation fighter acquisition as a direct threat to fifth-generation fighter programs," Air Force Lieut. Colonel Christopher Niemi, a veteran F-22 pilot, wrote in the November-December 2012 issue of the service's Air & Space Power Journal. Its refusal to reconsider buying new fourth-generation F-15s and F-16s in lieu of some F-35s "threatens to reduce the size of the Air Force's fielded fighter fleet to dangerously small numbers, particularly in the current fiscal environment."

A stealthy jet requires sacrifices in range, flying time and weapon-carrying capability--the hat trick of aerial warfare. All those factors have played a role in the fate of the Air Force's F-22 fighter, the nation's only other fifth-generation warplane. It has been sitting on runways around the globe for seven years, pawing at the tarmac as the nation waged wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Yet the F-22, built to fight wars against enemies that have yet to materialize, has yet to fly a single combat mission.

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