Issues & Insights

The F-35 Is Not Peace Through Strength, But Weakness Through Bureaucratic Misconception

U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Darlene Seltmann

The F-35 was supposed to be America’s most advanced fighter jet ever. But it has become the most expensive defense procurement program ever, through bureaucratic misconception and mismanagement. Estimated to cost taxpayers $1 trillion for this one weapon system alone over its lifetime.

The potential was enormous for America’s national defense. It was the chance to use the latest technology to build a weapon that would win every battle the defense bureaucrats could imagine, before it even started.

But trying to make one fighter jet mean everything for all battles would more likely mean an expensive technology that could not win any battle in the real world. Instead, such over-planning for future battles, more imagined than ever fought, would more likely end up spending the whole budget before anything ever gets off the ground.

The idea was that one high tech super jet could replace all future fighter jets for all military branches, adding up to enormous savings. But if that was such a great idea, why maintain those separate branches in the first place, the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines?

Those branches have existed separately all these years (centuries actually) because they have naturally separate roles. Centralizing them into one force runs the obvious risk of everyone getting killed by just one or two strategic mistakes, or design errors, or battle misconceptions.

Keeping the branches intact and separate naturally builds in strategic depth. Each branch can offer a different answer to the immediate challenges each battle may present.

That should naturally take best advantage of the high-tech opportunities that can be best exploited in any particular fight or battle. But trying to anticipate every need through one weapon is going to create naturally self-defeating warring bureaucracies.

The F-35 program has exemplified exactly these problems and weaknesses. The Air Force wanted a stealthy aircraft. One whose approach could be masked from air defenses.

But the Marines, from the perspective of the Navy, wanted a fighter that was bristling with weapons onboard. And that could take off vertically, to be able to take the battle from and into any terrain. Adding those features, however, would just add weight to the fighter, making it less stealthy.

The fighter jet also carried the name the F-35 Lightning II. But it couldn’t fly in thunderstorms because its lightening-protection system didn’t work. 

Businessman Donald Trump saw at a glance that the F-35 would not provide Reagan’s “Peace through Strength”. While he was still President-elect, he identified that “the F-35 program and cost is out of control.”

Late Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) condemned the F-35 as a “scandal and a tragedy with respect to its cost, schedule, and performance.” Indeed, GAO estimated its operating costs would be 79 percent higher than the fighter jets it would be replacing.

Trump’s latest budget, for fiscal year 2021, offered the largest cuts to discretionary spending, mostly composed of national defense, by any President ever. That would best include the Pentagon’s high-tech Maginot Line, the F-35, costing taxpayers by itself close to $2 trillion over its anticipated lifetime, supposedly from 2011 to 2077.

Every hour the F-35 is in the air would cost taxpayers $32,500, at latest count. The F-35 is consequently cost prohibitive, when the national debt is already $23 trillion, and growing with annual deficits already over $1 trillion per year. But the House Armed Services Committee is proposing a dozen more F-35s than the Pentagon even requested.

Each branch of the military would best offer its own, next generation, high-tech fighter plane. That can include fully updated F-15X fighter jets, and other new jets supplementing the capabilities of any F-35s that make it into the force. That would best ensure Reagan’s Peace Through Strength, discouraging all potential enemies from even trying to mess with the most advanced, high-tech, modern American military. (655 words).

Peter Ferrara is the Dunn Liberty Fellow in Economics at the King’s College in New York, and a senior fellow at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush

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5 comments

  • Per the usual: many years ago “We want the F-35 because it will be cheaper than the F-22.”. Some of us said “BS. this one plane fits all never works and the Marine Version will drive it in the wrong direction.” Now they yell: “It costs too much..” Usual solution “Buy nothing!” Right on time. Any time now the Navy will quietly back out the door just as they did with the last one of these, the F-111 back in the previous century.

  • Not a fighter– not designed to fight and win air to air engagements, its designed to penetrate heavily defended air spaces and put ordinance on target (tactical strike capability) without being detected or being detected much too late to be effectively targeted– similarly to the F-117 (long retired). How many aircraft and pilots is the Ferrrara willing to lose knowing he took the high road in fiscal virtue signaling and moral preening?

    If I wanted to read Ars Technica or Reddit opinions, I’d read Ars Technica or Reddit

    • The design parameters are laudable but can the aircraft that was produced meet them?

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