It’s the next generation of fighter plane. It’s one fixed-wing airframe, utilized across three U.S. services and nearly a dozen nations. It’s got stealth. It’s got VTOL. It can launch from carriers and airfields. It represents the future of air warfare, and it has the price tag to prove it. We are talking, of course, about the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
So what do you get when you ask for an aircraft that does everything that everyone needs it to do, talking seamlessly across services and looking really, really cool? You get the most expensive weapon program in U.S. history at almost a trillion and a half U.S. dollars. You get a tenth the promised number of aircraft delivered by 2016. You get a next generation fighter that does everything it’s asked, a fraction as well as its customers would like. You get Lockheed Martin laughing all the way to the bank as it cashes its checks while delivering these $100 million aircraft for the next three decades.
Program costs have spiraled out of control, with unit costs now nearly double projections from a decade ago. Fewer than two hundred of the promised 1000+ have been delivered as of now, and over 2400 have been ordered. The Air Force’s F-35s aren’t slated to reach initial operating capability until this October, while Navy variants won’t be usable until 2018.
So where do we go from here? It’s not like you can take 15 years of work, thousands of skilled laborers and hundreds of billions of dollars and just flush them. John McCain called the program in its current state a “scandal and a tragedy in respect to cost, schedule and performance”. It’s more of the same rhetoric. True as his statement may be, the F-35 is here to stay; the debate is moot. It isn’t the first bloated jack-of-all-trades defense program to blow its budget and miss its deadline. It’s simply the biggest. It’s been wasteful, it’s been inefficient, but if the end product is half the fighter it is supposed to be, it may actually survive the three decades it is slated to be produced.