The Most Expensive Weapon Ever Built
By Mark Thompson, TIME, Feb. 25, 2013
Marine Major Aric “Walleye” Liberman was uncharacteristically modest for a Navy SEAL turned fighter pilot. He had just landed an F-35—one of the 2,457 jets the Pentagon plans to buy for $400 billion, making it the costliest weapons program in human history—at its initial operational base late last year. Amid celebratory hoopla, he declined photographers’ requests to give a thumbs-up for the cameras that sunny day in Yuma, Ariz. “No, no, no,” he demurred with a smile.
Liberman’s reticence was understandable. For while the Marines hailed his arrival as a sign that their initial F-35 squadron is now operational, there’s one sticking point. “It’s an operational squadron,” a Marine spokesman said. “The aircraft is not operational.”
The F-35, designed as the U.S. military’s lethal hunter for 21st century skies, has become the hunted, a poster child for Pentagon profligacy in a new era of tightening budgets. Instead of the stars and stripes of the U.S. Air Force emblazoned on its fuselage, it might as well have a bull’s-eye. Its pilots’ helmets are plagued with problems, it hasn’t yet dropped or fired weapons, and the software it requires to go to war remains on the drawing board.
That’s why when Liberman landed his F-35 before an appreciative crowd, including home-state Senator John McCain, he didn’t demonstrate its most amazing capability: landing like a helicopter using its precision-cast titanium thrust-vectoring nozzle. That trick remains reserved for test pilots, not operational plane drivers like him.
The price tag, meanwhile, has nearly doubled since 2001, to $396 billion. Production delays have forced the Air Force and Navy to spend at least $5 billion to extend the lives of existing planes. The Marine Corps—the cheapest service, save for its love of costly jump jets (which take off and land almost vertically) for its pet aircraft carriers—have spent $180 million on 74 used British AV-8 jets for spare parts to keep their Reagan-era Harriers flying until their version of the F-35 truly comes online. Allied governments are increasingly weighing alternatives to the F-35.
But the accounting is about to get even worse as concern over spending on the F-35 threatens other defense programs. On March 1, if lawmakers cannot reach a new budget deal, the Pentagon faces more than $500 billion in spending cuts in the form of sequestration, which translates into a 10% cut in projected budgets over the coming decade. Two years ago, the White House predicted that those cuts would be so onerous to defense-hawk Republicans that they would never happen. But the GOP is now split, with a growing number of members who are more concerned about the deficit than defense.
“We are spending maybe 45% of the world’s budget on defense. If we drop to 42% or 43%, would we be suddenly in danger of some kind of invasion?” asked Representative Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican and part of a new breed of deficit hawks who talk of spending as a bigger threat than war. “We’re bankrupting our country, and it’s going to put us in danger.”
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.
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.”
Pilots love the F-35. There are few gauges, buttons or knobs in the cockpit. “What you have in front of you is a big touchscreen display—it’s an interface for the iPad generation,” says Marine Colonel Arthur Tomassetti, an F-35 test pilot. “You have an airplane that with very small movements of your left and right hand does what you want it to do. And if you don’t want it to do anything, it stays where you left it.” That makes it easy to fly. “I’m watching the emerald-colored sea up against the white sand,” Tomassetti says of his flights from Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. “I remember lots of flights in other airplanes where I never had time to do anything like that.”
But military technology has been moving away from manned fighters for years. Drones, standoff weapons and GPS-guided bombs have cut the utility of, and need for, such short-leg piloted planes. Their limits become even more pronounced amid the Pentagon’s pivot to the Pacific, where the tyranny of distance makes the F-35’s short combat radius (469 miles for the Marines, 584 for the Air Force, 615 for the Navy) a bigger challenge.
Computers are key to flying the plane. But instead of taking advantage of simplicity, the F-35 is heading in the other direction: its complexity can be gleaned from its 24 million lines of computer code, including 9.5 million on board the plane. That’s more than six times as much as the Navy F-18 has. The F-35 computer code, government auditors say, is “as complicated as anything on earth.”
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.”
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.