The Pentagon will delay acquisition of more than 100 early-model Joint Strike Fighters, a bid to save up-front money and to give more time for testers to work out the finicky F-35 warplane’s many technical kinks. That much was expected: The real surprise is that a newly cash-conscious Defense Department still seems fully committed to buying nearly 2,500 of the stealth jets.
‘Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program’
Total cost: about a trillion dollars.
In the short term, The military will purchase only around 30 JSFs per year from 2013 to 2017, an almost 50-percent reduction that could save $15 billion in the next few years. News of the delay comes at the same time the White House and Pentagon are rolling out a new U.S. military strategy that de-emphasizes grinding land wars in favor of air and sea deterrence in the Pacific.
The military still aims to eventually buy about 1,800 copies of Lockheed Martin’s stealthy, single-engine fighter for the Air Force, and another 700 or so for the Navy and Marines. And all three versions of the $100-million-a-pop fighter will apparently go forward: the Air Force’s and Navy’s conventional-takeoff models and the Marines’ more complex vertical-launching variant, which last year was placed on “probation” owing to weight and reliability issues.
At a trillion dollars over 50 years, JSF is history’s most expensive weapons program. Currently, the Pentagon anticipates the F-35 being combat-ready sometime in 2018.
The fresh commitment to the jet, rather than the long-telegraphed production delay, is the real news in the ongoing Defense Department revamp. It seems the Pentagon’s renewed interest in traditional air power trumps the F-35?s troubled history and the growing pressure for deep cuts in defense spending.
Granted, the government has said all along that it was absolutely determined to bring the JSF on-line, despite the steady drumbeat of bad news regarding design problems, mismanagement and cost increases. “Simply put, there is no alternative to the F-35 program,” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said.
Technically, that’s not true. Besides Lockheed’s F-35 assembly line in Ft. Worth, the U.S. has three other fighter factories building upgraded models of the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 — and Lockheed’s F-22 line is still in the process of shutting down following 15 years of production. What Donley meant is that there isn’t another new, fully stealthy fighter that the Pentagon can bring into service within the next few years.
With air defenses and rival fighter designs proliferating, especially in Asia, the U.S. military — and the Air Force, in particular — wants most its future warplanes to be stealthy. Besides continuing to support the JSF, the Pentagon is doubling down on its new stealth-bomber project, with an initial appropriation of $200 million for R&D. Congress helped out by adding $100 million to the military’s 2013 budget request for the bomber.
Foreign government are also lining up to bolster the F-35. In recent weeks, Japan has finally announced its intention to buy as many as 50 copies of the stealth fighter, while Turkey has placed its first firm order for the jet. South Korea is now looking into purchasing the JSF, as well. Far from doubting the plane’s design, many U.S. allies are now worrying aloud that they won’t be able to get the F-35 fast enough.