Is the US military's new plane worth the high cost?
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos once asked, "Is the juice worth the squeeze?" of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Pentagon's costliest program has cost the United States $392 billion to date. For years, media commentators, former and current military personnel and politicians have all criticized the program for its high costs and slow progress. Yet despite the hundreds of news articles published on the F-35, not one of them tells the whole story. The F-35 has become an easy target for politicians and journalists in part because it is expedient to criticize anything that has drawn so much negative attention. But the F-35 is exactly what America needs for a future conflict and the program costs are not nearly as bad as they look.
It was reported by the Pentagon that the entire cost of building and operating the F-35 fleet would be about $1.5 trillion over the course of the plane's service. At a glance, $1.5 trillion seems like an outrageous amount. What is often not reported by the media is that the plane is expected to stay in service until at least 2065. That's over 50 years of flying, including both construction and upgrade costs. Critics of the program are also quick to complain about the high maintenance cost of the F-35. It should be noted that the F-35 will replace several planes currently in U.S. service. Compare the cost of maintaining the F-15, F-16, F-18 and AV-8B Harrier to the cost of maintain one type of plane, the F-35. Initially costs will be high as the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps familiarize their mechanics and logistical services with the new planes, but the long term cost of maintaining the F-35 fleet is far less than the cost of maintaining several different aging varieties of airframes.
The $1.5 trillion price tag also includes inflated estimations, such as expected future inflation and changes in price calculation. No one can accurately predict what inflation will be in 20 years, nor can anyone accurately predict the cost of aircraft components or avionics decades from now. Also consider that the price of each F-35 is falling from $150 million to around $100 million over the first five production runs. This reduction in price is by no means guaranteed. If Congress keeps cutting the number of F-35s, the cost per plane will increase, causing other nations to cancel or reduce their orders thus increasing the price further.
It is true that some countries, like Canada and Denmark, have had second thoughts about purchasing the F-35. Both Canada and Denmark will announce whether they still plan to purchase F-35s later this year. Even so, the number of client nations has not shrunk, but grown. South Korea, Israel and Japan have announced their intention to acquire the new warplanes with Singapore and Belgium expressing interest. There are now 11 potential client nations, including the U.S., together purchasing a total of 3,100 F-35s.
The F-35 program does have some flaws. The plane is not optimized for air-to-air combat against fifth-generation fighters. But the F-35 was never intended to be used as a premier air superiority fighter. Rather the F-35 was intended to be used in conjunction with the F-22, a fifth-generation stealth fighter already in U.S. service. If the United States wants to get the most out of the F-35, more F-22s would have to be produced. Currently there are no F-22s in production; acquisition was ended under President Barack Obama's first term. This has led to a gap in American air superiority. Too few F-22s are in service today and the military does not plan to introduce a sixth-generation fighter until 2030. More F-22s need to be built to complement the F-35s entering service.
The story of the F-35 has many parallels with the story of the C-5 Galaxy transport plane that was developed in the late 60's. The C-5 was the subject of two congressional investigations, had a billion dollar cost overrun (a lot of money back then) and led to a row between the Department of Defense and Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin). Yet the C-5 proved to be one of the most effective transport planes in American history, supporting every major U.S. conflict from Vietnam to the War in Afghanistan and airlifting supplies to disaster zones anywhere in the world. Criticism evaporated and the C-5 is still in service today. Like the C-5, the F-35's development is painful, but it will pay off.
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