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Why We Must Continue to
Fund the F-35
The F-35 Lightning II was designed as a versatile replacement for the aging American and allied tactical aircraft fleet. The platform’s enhanced stealth and electronic warfare capabilities and ability to operate in an increased number of environments will ensure air superiority for decades to come. Program delays and cost increases, however, have garnered the platform its fair share of criticism. 133,000 current jobs and over $300 billion dollars over the life of the program are at stake. What are the facts?
The United States has three times more fourth-generation fighters than its nearest competitor. Why do we need a new fighter?
The effectiveness of US air power is a product of both size and quality. To ensure American air superiority, we must also ensure that the technology employed by America’s fighters is second-to-none, and that the size of the front-line fleet is sufficient. The technological edge of the American tactical air fleet is only about five years, and both Russia and China are fielding fifth-generation fighters of their own. Preserving the cumulative quantity-quality advantage requires that the United States field a full fleet of fifth-generation fighters now.
Ok, so the F-35 program might be “too big to fail.” But why is it necessary to acquire so many different variants of the plane? Isn’t this part of the cost problem?
Each variant is designed to suit a different need. Think of the car market: not everyone needs to drive a semitruck, and if that was the only vehicle available for purchase, costs would significantly increase for the part of the population that would be happy driving a compact. By creating differentiated products for different needs, the military not only has the opportunity to customize its fleet as changing circumstances warrant, but also realize cost savings over the long run.
The F/A-18E/F and the F-22 Raptor are suitable for many of the same missions as the F-35. Surely America can afford to buy fewer planes in the interest of savings?
While it is true that the current fleet is suitable for more benign air-to-air and air-to-ground circumstances, the F-35 performs these missions better and in a greater number of environments. Its enhanced networking; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and sensing capabilities will stand up to increasingly sophisticated enemy air defenses. Moreover, the F-35B variant’s short takeoff and vertical landing capability will allow power projection from a greater array of naval assets and ground contingencies. Decreasing the number of F-35s that the United States acquires will actually increase per-unit costs, and the alternative—upgrading America’s aging fighter fleet—is not likely to save money except in the very near term.&
Nonetheless, the costs of stealth aircraft far exceed their benefits in asymmetric conflicts. Shouldn’t we invest in types of equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that will be relevant to future warfare?
It is impossible to predict the precise nature of future wars. Though it is important to build off lessons learned in recent conflicts, America cannot dismiss the possibility of war against a technologically sophisticated state. The value of the current generation of UAVs in such a conflict is unclear, and inventing, designing, and building a high-end UAV fleet would not be cheap—indeed, the most effective future UAV might well be a variant of the F-35 design.
Why have program costs increased so dramatically?
First, costs have gone up because of changing government requirements. This is not unique to the F-35 program. We have seen this happen with virtually every major aircraft acquisition over the past 30-odd years, most recently with the F-22 Raptor. Second, per-unit cost estimates increase when orders decrease; as economies of scale go down, prices go up. Moreover, the less often the government lives up to its end of an agreement, the more contractors must build insurance into their prices to protect themselves from such behavior. As these factors interact, prices jump astronomically.
Foreign partners are increasingly critical of the F-35. Why is it so important for us to produce these fighters when our allies may not even want them?
Foreign criticisms are mostly based on costs, which would be lower if our coalition partners maintained their purchase commitments. From a force-planning standpoint, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the importance of equipment interoperability among coalition partners, and the Joint Strike Fighter was designed with this in mind. Importantly, the F-35 is not just an American export. Though US partners balk at the price, the fact that many F-35 components are manufactured on their soil means that they too have a vested interest in recouping their investment in the program.
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