The Lightening II Problem
How the F-35 program is reshaping the military industrial complex and why it’s controversial
What is the F-35?
Developed by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Lightening II is possibly the most technologically advanced aircraft ever built. It is a fifth-generation aircraft, which means it is among the newest and most advanced designs in military aviation. It was designed as a multi-role fighter, meaning it will fill the roles of multiple aircraft when in service. It is slated to replace aircraft such as the F-16, A-10, and Harrier, among others. It is equipped with extremely advanced electronics, stealth technology, a revolutionary user interface that provides more information to the pilot than ever before, while simultaneously sharing that information with other aircraft and command, and one version even has Short Takeoff Vertical Landing (STOVL) capabilities.
Recently, the United States held their Red Flag event, a sort of large-scale war game held by the United States but including various NATO countries. The purpose of the event is to simulate actual combat and evaluate tactics and equipment. During the most recent Red Flag, the F-35 reportedly did very well, with a 15:1 kill ratio (however, this ratio may well be attributable in large part to the new Lockheed F-22’s that flew alongside it). While it has been said that the F-35 is not able to effectively combat advanced fourth-generation fighters, it seems to be doing well. So what’s the problem?
The problem with the F-35 stems from its cost, development, and politics.
While the F-35 may be advanced, it is advanced at a cost. A tremendous cost. The military plans to order 2,443 F-35’s in total, but with the huge cost of development and a staggeringly high unit cost of between $102.1 and $132.2 million dollars per plane (and these estimates do not include the engine). In fact, the total cost of the F-35 program by the end of its run is estimated to be 1.5 trillion dollars. That’s roughly the cost of the entire Iraq War. Additionally, the F-35 costs $35,000 per flight hour, much more than other military jets.
Furthermore, the development of the F-35 has been riddled with problems and delays. It is 7 years overdue and 70% over budget.
One of the big issues in the development of the F-35 lies in the method of its development.
The issue in the development of the F-35 is an issue of concurrency. The F-35 was put into production before testing was complete. While the F-35 website claims that his speeds up production, it also has serious risks. This is because every time an issue is discovered in the airplane’s design (and many, many issues have been discovered) every airplane that has already been built need to be recalled and fixed, adding to the cost. This is the issue with concurrency.
Problems with development are further complicated by the fact that each branch of the military needs their own special version of the F-35, each with its own modifications.
Trying to build one aircraft to fill so many roles over three military branches is extremely ambitious and expensive. However, Lockheed Martin is doing just fine. That’s because the government is funding this airplane. Which means its coming out of our taxes.
How can we stop this flawed program from continuing to empty the pockets of the government? The short answer is that we can’t.
Recently, Donald Trump tweeted about the overly expensive F-35 program, saying that he was looking into alternative options.
However, canceling the F-35 program could have a severe impact on the United States economy. At the moment, the program includes 146,000 jobs in 46 states. Additionally, there are other countries and 1,200 suppliers involved in the development and production. The loss of so many jobs and international business ventures would be catastrophic for the economy.
How did this happen?
In order to answer this, let’s look at the military industrial complex.
The military industrial complex is the relationship between the military, the government, and the economy. When the military needs to buy something new, they go through congress. Congress works out how much they’re willing to give to the military to get them what they need. The military will then put out specifications for what they want, and the private defense industry will present their ideas. The military will then pick the idea that they like best and draw up a contract with the company that supplied it. This is a very simplified version of how the military industrial complex works. Or, at least, how it’s supposed to work.
The reason Lockheed Martin got the contract for their F-35 may not have been because it was the best plane for the job. These large defense companies have other methods of securing business with the military. One such method is something called “political engineering.” Political engineering is the process by which a company gains political leverage by setting up as many jobs in as many states as possible. The idea behind this maneuver is that if a company can offer jobs within a state, the representatives from that state will be more likely to support giving a contract to that company, as it will stimulate their local economy. This political engineering was exemplified in Lockheed’s recent purchase of Sikorsky Aircraft, which gave them leverage in the northeast.
As you can see from Lockheed’s interactive map here, the states that have jobs and suppliers for the F-35 program are adding anything from $10 million to nearly $10 billion to their local economy.
This brings us back to the idea of canceling the F-35 program. With 146,000 jobs across America and billions of dollars invested, canceling the project would devastate the economy. It would also strain relationships with our allies, as many of them have already ordered F-35’s and some are supplying parts.
For this reason, come critics have expressed concern over the huge stake the government and economy have in Lockheed Martin. “Lockheed Martin looks like a classic case of a company that is too big to fail,” William Hartung, author of the book “Prophets of War” said in a 2015 interview with Politico. What’s more: on top of having one of the military’s most expensive development programs to work on, Lockheed Martin also has a hand in working on some of the aircraft the F-35 is designed to replace, notably the F-16 and the A-10.
The bitter pill here is that we don’t know how good the F-35 is yet. Furthermore, even if it is good, we’ll have to consider if it was really worth our money. On top of that, we don’t know if we’ll ever need this aircraft. The F-35 is built to fight against another, technologically advanced nation in an industrial war, but that’s not the kind of war we’re fighting right now. Frankly, the high operating cost of the F-35 hardly justifies its use against terrorist organizations like ISIL or Al Qaeda. We have other planes that can run those missions for less money. In 2011, Gary Hart led a task force in drafting recommendations for military reform in Obama’s second term. This is what he came up with:
Twenty-first Century Directions for America’s Defense. War has changed and we have not kept pace. The potential for traditional nation-state wars is decreasing. Unconventional, irregular conflicts are increasing. Rather than traditional, hierarchical command systems managing concentrated, large-scale force structures designed for major global wars, 21st century conflicts require networked, smaller-scale combat units configured for maneuver, mobility, flexibility, and surprise operating under a modern, faster, cohesive command structure.
According to this memo, there is little room for something like the F-35 in modern combat. It may be of use sometime in the future, but right now it’s very uncertain if the United States is going to get their money’s worth out of the F-35.