Expert wonders if it's time to put F-35 out of its misery

Tuesday - 12/6/2011, 11:30am EST

Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project, Center for Defense Information

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By Michael O'Connell
Web Editor
Federal News Radio

The Pentagon's $380 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is hitting turbulence.

Although committed to the program, the Defense Department is open to slowing down production as engineers identified "hot spots" where cracks could appear, AOL Defense reports.

"The structural problems [are] just another bump in a long bumpy road," said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, in an interview with the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris on Tuesday. Wheeler previously worked on national security issues for the Government Accountability Office and members of both parties in the Senate.

The next major hurdle awaiting the troubled aircraft is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's budget decision. "It's unclear whether he's simply going to reduce the production buy or cancel one of the three models or how much he's going to delay further production before the test program is complete, which is one of the more insane aspects of this airplane," Wheeler said.

This week, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed to cost overruns with the F-35 program, saying it "has been both a scandal and a tragedy," The Hill reports.

The Defense Department is still pushing to develop the new, fifth-generation of the fighter. But in October, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that he questioned if the country could afford separate versions for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Shortcomings not new

Wheeler said these problems were inevitable in an ultra-complex, multi-service, multi-role airplane bought during an acquisition program that sought to buy hundreds of models before the test program was finished.

Wheeler pointed to viable alternatives to the F-35 exist, such as the F-15, F-16 and F-18, all of which are still in production.

"Depending on what kind of airplane you want, you can adjust what's coming out of the production lines right now to address the needs of the Air Force and Navy," he said.

Wheeler called the F-35 both unaffordable and a huge disappointment in performance. "It's barely an improvement over existing models of airplanes," he said. "The smart thing to do would be to put this airplane out of its misery. The Pentagon's managers don't have the will ... to do that right now."

Instead, according to Wheeler, the managers will continue to "torture the plane" by reducing the production buy and delaying some things rather than canceling the program. "All that's going to do is make the airplane more expensive and even later than it is now," he said. "It's a Band-Aid approach which is not going to solve the fundamental problem that this plane presents."

Defense heads have said there is no alternative to the program. Although faced with inevitable budget cuts, DoD must also "look to areas where we have to continue to invest for the future. And the F-35 is one of those areas, where we are going to continue to invest for the future," Panetta said in Reuters.

In an interview with AOL Gov, Vice Adm. David Venlet, head of the JSF program, said, "The question for me is not: 'F-35 or not?' The question is, how many and how fast? I'm not questioning the ultimate inventory numbers, I'm questioning the pace that we ramp up production for us and the partners, and can we afford it?"

A future without the F-35

The F-35 replaces the F-22's and cost less than half the total cost of the F-22, capitalizing on the eocnomies of scale, said former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a speech in 2009.

The challenge for DoD is that for F-35 costs to go down, production rates need to go up, Military.com reports. "And if the costs don't come down, the Pentagon and most of the foreign nations expected to buy F-35s may not place orders," according to report.

"There's a significant danger that if there are further cuts to the program it would unravel the business plan," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute and a consultant to Lockheed said in Military.com.

"Lockheed has been very skillful at getting eight to 10 foreign purchasers on the hook by getting them to invest in this airplane and to commit funds for it," Wheeler said. "As this airplane gets increasingly late and more expensive, a lot of those foreign purchasers are having the beginning of second thoughts."