F-35 Lightning II: A History of the Most Expensive Military Program Ever

While I was looking at the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, I must confess to mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the F-35 is an aesthetically wonderful aircraft–one cannot help but admire its long sleek lines and its graceful stealthy curves–and it represents some of the most advanced technology in the world. As a matter of history, it may also represent the last major manned military fighter ever to be designed. On the other hand, the F-35 has the dubious honor of being the most expensive military project ever undertaken by humans, and can only be viewed as a seemingly bottomless money pit.

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The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, on display at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center. This is the Marines short-takeoff vertical-landing “B” version.

In the mid 1990’s, the Cold War was over, and the US military was under pressure to reduce its size and expense. The military had also just been introduced to “stealth” technology, which was used to reduce the radar signature of aircraft and naval vessels, allowing them to evade enemy detection. As a result, the Pentagon made plans to eliminate its fleet of F-16 Falcon fighters, F/A 18 Hornet fighter/bombers, A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft, and A/V-8B Harrier close support jets, replacing all of them with a single multi-role fighter-bomber. To reduce expenses further, the new plane would be used by the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines, each with minor variations to fit its own requirements (the Air Force F-35A version used conventional takeoff and landing, the Navy F-35C version would be equipped for carrier use, and the Marine F-35B version would have short takeoff and vertical landing capability like the Harrier). And the new aircraft would take full advantage of new stealth technology. In 1996, the Pentagon asked aerospace companies to submit designs for the new “Joint Strike Fighter”.  In 2001, the contract went to Lockheed-Martin, whose planned aircraft was designated the F-35 Lightning II, named in honor of the twin-boom P-38 World War Two Lockheed fighter.

The F-35 is 51 feet long with a wingspan of 35 feet. It is powered by a Pratt and Whitney F135 turbofan jet engine with 28,000 pounds of thrust. Top speed is mach 1.6; the rate of climb is classified. The plane carries a single 25mm Gatling gun, six wing pylons, and two internal bomb bays, carrying in total 18,000 pounds of ordnance, including air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, and guided smart bombs.

There is no two-seat training version of the F-35—the Pentagon instead depends on F-16 training and the extensive use of flight simulators to train F-35 pilots.

A number of other nations joined in with the project–England, Japan, Singapore, Italy, Israel, Australia, Canada, Norway, The Netherlands, and Denmark.  Lockheed-Martin built a number of heavily-automated factories to produce parts and sub-assemblies for the F-35. The US planned to build almost 2500 F-35’s for itself, and several thousand more for use by its allies. (The export version was to be deliberately less capable than the US version.) Along with the F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter, the F-35 was to serve as the backbone of US forces through the 2040’s.

It wasn’t long, however, before problems appeared. The basic mistake is that Lockheed had already begun production of the F-35 before the design was even flight-tested, assuming that its computerized testing and modeling would already have found any major flaws in the design. So now every time an unexpected problem does appear, the design has to be modified and the already-produced planes have to be retrofitted, at enormous expense. As a result, production had to be curtailed, and delays began setting in as new problems continued to be found. The software needed to run the plane and its weapon systems was enormously complicated (some 30 million lines of code), and was continuously delayed. Flight testing revealed difficulties with severe wing buffeting. The vertical landing apparatus for the Marine version (the most expensive F-35 variant) has presented problems, and Marine pilots have been forbidden to practice the procedure as it is deemed too dangerous. Test pilots reported problems with visibility from the cockpit, and flaws with the plane’s radar systems. The requirement to modify the same airframe design for different uses has led to an enormous increase in testing and evaluation costs. Lockheed and the Pentagon argued vociferously over who would pay for all the necessary fixes to the plane’s designs, and delays continued to add up.

Virtually all advanced aircraft, of course, have such teething problems when first introduced–they are usually fixed later to produce a workable plane. But many critics wonder whether the F-35 is even needed at all–enormous advances in drone technology have, they conclude, made manned air-to-ground attack aircraft virtually obsolete. As aircraft capabilities continue to increase, the pilot has become the primary restriction on design and performance, and it may well be that the future of military aircraft will lie in the direction of unmanned remotely-piloted vehicles.

Whether needed or not, by 2010 the F-35 program’s cost overruns were ballooning–some 50% above the initial estimates. The cost per plane skyrocketed to over $100 million. In recent years, the seemingly interminable delays in the F-35 program have led some countries to cut back on their orders for the new aircraft, which then produced even higher costs per unit. By 2012, the price tag per plane had risen to $133 million, twice the original estimate. The F-35 program has so far spent almost $400 billion, and the total cost of the projected US F-35 fleet over its 50-year lifespan has been estimated at around $1.5 trillion–roughly $600 million per plane. It is not expected that full production of operational F-35’s will begin before 2019.  Meanwhile, there are persistent rumors from the Pentagon that the program has simply become unaffordable and will be even further curtailed (some suggestions have been made to drop production of the Marine version altogether, and also to drop the Air Force version too and use the Navy variant for all three services), or perhaps even cancelled entirely.  Pentagon officials worry that the F-35 will enter a lethal spiral in which cost overruns and delays lead to fewer orders, which then produce even higher costs and more delays.

So is the F-35 the most advanced aircraft of the 21st century, or just a trillion-dollar boondoggle . . .?

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5 thoughts on “F-35 Lightning II: A History of the Most Expensive Military Program Ever”

  1. 1) Likewise, regarding the lure of aircraft tech and aesthetics. I can’t help but think of the line from Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan”:

    “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons”

    2) You may have seen this:

    3) Speaking of beauty, somewhere I’ve got a photo I took at the Western Museum of Flight (12 or 13 years ago, before we left L.A.) of the YF-23 prototype on display there. I’ll try to dig it out and email it to you.

    4) Speaking of the F-23, did you hear that the F-22 saw its first combat use, in Syria?

  2. Speaking of gorgeous airplanes, though, the Smithsonian Air and Space had for years the prototype forward-swept X-29 on display. Oh, it brought tears to my eyes. What a suuu-weet looking bird. 🙂

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