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January 5, 2017

Ridin’ Into the Danger Zone

The U.S. Defense Department is wasting millions on fighter jets that are barely functional.

The military is no stranger to big expenses. With a defense budget that accounts for 15 percent of the 2016 annual budget, it can afford to have an impressive repertoire that includes $1.5 million missiles, $8.5 million tanks, and other expensive instruments of doom. But in the military, more money doesn’t necessarily mean deadlier weapons. The military is planning to replace its entire air fleet with F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jets, which cost a staggering $110 million apiece, and this money is not necessarily well spent. For all the money being thrown toward the creation of the F-35, this new weapon may in fact be more deadly to its developers: the United States.

Designed to be the ultimate combination of speed and stealth, with the ability to take off vertically and evade radar, the Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be the latest testament to American military superiority. In reality, the F-35 JSF is a stunning amalgamation of everything that can go wrong with a fighter jet. It is lambasted by engineers, politicians, and even the military itself. According to Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation for the Defense Department, the program "is actually not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver.” On December 12, President-elect Donald J. Trump condemned the program and tweeted ”The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”

For example, to satisfy the Marines’ demand for the jet to be capable of vertical takeoff, aerospace company Lockheed Martin installed a large downward-blasting engine along with a sizeable fan. This demand for vertical takeoff is the root of many of the plane’s problems. The engine’s strong thrust easily kicks up dirt into the engine, potentially destroying it. The large fan’s placement in the plane prevents engineers from making the jet sleek enough to escape radar detection, ruining its stealth capabilities. The plane’s ungainly shape also impedes its maneuverability in the air. In order for the fighter jet to get off the ground, engineers were forced to strip 3,000 pounds of extra weight. This meant a lower weapon capacity, lower fuel load, and thinner plating. The politicization of the jet’s purpose within the military has greatly reduced its lethalness in battle.

What’s even more concerning is how the F-35 compares to other fighters. During a weapons test conducted in January 2015, the F-35 embarrassingly lost to an older F-16, first introduced in 1978. Let that sink in. Now imagine the military’s entire fleet being replaced with this plane, due to its contract with Lockheed Martin. While our planes are being downgraded, other countries would be creating deadlier fighter jets. We would lose many battles, pilots’ lives, and ultimately the advantage of superior air power.  

The plane’s crippling design flaws are far from its only folly. The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons project to date, projected to cost over $1.5 trillion. This is well over the originally expected price tag of $200 billion. According to one military official, the Air Force would have to eliminate nearly a fifth of its squadrons to replace its entire fleet with this inferior and glitchy plane. Gilmore believes that the plane is “running out of time and money.” Beyond the wide array of mechanical shortcomings, the project has suffered from numerous delays.  

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program seems to be begging to be cut, but doing so would require political suicide on the part of congressmen. Gutting the program would mean getting rid of 133,000 jobs across 45 states. Needless to say, most members of Congress would not like to be associated with cutting jobs.  

Since killing the program through Congress is very unlikely, other solutions must be examined. Donald Trump’s criticism of the program may lead to progress. Trump’s proposed solution is certainly hazy, but there is always the possibility that he could issue an executive order to halt production of the faulty planes (especially with President Obama establishing a precedent for broader use of executive power). After all, if the new planes in production are weaker than models that are three decades old, the U.S. does not have too much to lose by taking this gamble.  

A more realistic solution would be to modify the jet. When China released a prototype of the J-31 in September 2012, many military experts began to suspect that China stole the designs of the F-35 due to the similar appearance of the their jet. However, the J-31 lacks many of the crippling design flaws that plague the F-35, namely the unwieldy parts that power vertical takeoff. This gives the J-31 superior speed, maneuverability, and an increased cargo capacity. Ironically, another country seems to have managed to produce a superior version of this plane. The military and Lockheed Martin should follow China’s design example and modify the three main model variations. One model could keep the vertical takeoff features to appease the Marine Corps and the other two could drop the unnecessary feature. This way, engineers would be free to upgrade the fighter jet’s durability, speed, and stealth capabilities. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be turned from a jack of all trades, master of none to three specialized variants that excel at their respective tasks.  

The F-35 JSF project has been constantly plagued with serious problems since its conception, but it does not have to be a complete failure. This fighter jet program threatens to entirely dismantle the United States’ influence and military superiority in the world. We need to push our politicians to confront Lockheed Martin for the program’s problems while the military de-politicizes the jet’s functionalities. To protect our way of life, change needs to happen on a civilian, political, and military level.  

Brian Dong is a first-year in the College majoring in political science.

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