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Missing from the most expensive defense program ever: A clear purpose

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Opinion,Columnists,Jed Babbin,Air Force,National Security,Defense Spending,Technology,F-35,Magazine

The F-35 should be known as the fighter that ate the defense budget.

It's the most expensive defense program ever. So far the cost is about $400 billion to buy them and an additional $1 trillion to fly and maintain over its service life. And its costs are still climbing.

And that’s not the only problem. There’s a shocking statement about the F-35 by a man who needs to be taken seriously: Gen. Michael Hostage, the head of Air Combat Command. He's responsible for ensuring the Air Force has the right aircraft for the right missions. He’s also responsible for air combat strategies and tactics.

In an Air Force Times interview published Feb. 2, Hostage said, “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22. Because I got such a pitifully tiny fleet, I've got to ensure I will have every single one of those F-22s as capable as it possibly can be.”

Two weeks later, “60 Minutes” featured a segment that touted the F-35 as precisely what Hostage said it was not: an air supremacy fighter.

“60 Minutes” said the F-35 will be the fighter that will control the skies in any future war with Russia or China. It quoted Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh as saying that any of the older planes the U.S. has – F-15s and F-16s — would, put up against the most modern Russian or Chinese fighters, die before they knew they were in a fight.

True enough, but what Welsh said was taken out of context. He said nothing that disagreed with what Hostage said.

The “60 Minutes” segment cannot be taken seriously because, from the time Lockheed and the Air Force signed the contract for the F-35 in 2001, the F-35 wasn’t designed to be an air superiority weapon. It can’t fly high enough or fast enough to do that job. To sum it all up, the F-35 is just a super-ninjafied attack aircraft, not an air supremacy fighter.

And now Gen. Hostage finds himself with fewer than the 187 F-22s built to protect the almost 2,500 F-35s that are scheduled to be purchased.

The math just doesn’t work. If you have the force of about 170 combat-ready F-22s (which Hostage has at any given moment) it means each F-22 has to be available every hour of every day to protect about 15 F-35s. (Which leaves zero F-22s for other missions.)

And the F-22 has its own problems, such as a pilot oxygen system that led to severe headaches and probably one crash. Also an already-outdated computer system that needs to be replaced.

On fighters, nothing is cheap to fix — including the F-35 headrest that blocks rear vision in a way that will be fatal to pilots in dogfights. Or the horrifically complex computer software that keeps the F-35 grounded 67 percent of the time, according to the Feb. 3 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine.

At the risk of falling into some Air Force lingo, let’s pull back on the stick and gain some altitude on this problem. When we do, it’s easy to see that the problem isn’t just the F-35’s evident failures or the small number of F-22s. It’s the lack of a national strategy to deter or defeat the threats we face.

Until that strategy is crafted, military leaders such as Gen. Hostage can't know what they need to keep Americans secure. And – pace “60 Minutes” – they can’t know whether they need a single F-35, far less than 2,500 of them.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.

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Jed Babbin

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The Washington Examiner