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National Security
12:55 pm
Thu January 3, 2013

The F-35 Fighter Jet: The Cost And Controversy

Originally published on Fri January 4, 2013 11:13 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

If plans go ahead, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be the workhorse of the Air Force, Navy and Marines for decades to come. The F-35 boasts a sleek profile that makes it nearly invisible to radar, and it's scheduled to replace as many as 10 planes that are currently in service, including the venerable F-16. Lieutenant Colonel Todd LaFortune is among the first to make the transition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

LIEUTENANT COLONEL TODD LAFORTUNE: We decided once you start flying the F-35, we're not going to be dual-qualified. So now, I should be done with the F-16 for the rest of my life. That was a sad day, but it's one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life, was being selected to come fly this aircraft and then get to actually fly it now. It's pretty neat.

CONAN: But the Joint Strike Fighter is also years behind schedule and many billions over budget. As the Pentagon faces cuts, many wonder if we can afford the most expensive weapons procurement system in history, and some critics also say the plane isn't very good. You may have heard NPR's national security correspondent Larry Abramson's two-part series on the F-35 that aired yesterday. He joins us now from an assignment in Jerusalem.

Larry, nice to have you back on the program.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And it should be emphasized, at least if you listen to military spokesmen, they say the F-35 is absolutely necessary and absolutely great.

ABRAMSON: They do, Neal, and that - and part of that is because the F-16, the workhorse predecessor, as you called it, is getting pretty long in the tooth. The U.S. military hasn't really bought any F-16s for over a decade, and a lot of the fleet dates from the 1980s. And they say it's simply unsafe to try to keep maintaining aircraft that are this old - especially fighter planes, which are subjected to huge amounts of stress, all those G-forces that we hear about. They also say it's really expensive to keep up those old airplanes, and at some point, you're replacing parts so often, it's time to move on to the next generation.

The most compelling reason, though, is that the military likes new things, and they like to adopt new technologies. And, of course, there have been a lot of new technologies invented since the F-16 came out of the factory.

CONAN: And primarily, stealth technology, which makes those planes...

ABRAMSON: Right.

CONAN: ...very difficult to detect on radar.

ABRAMSON: Right. And the F-35, which is known as a fifth-generation plane, is one of only two planes - the other was the F-22 that has that name - and is totally built around stealth. So that means it isn't something that was grafted on afterwards. It's really part of the design of the plane. Everything, all the armaments that this plane carries in certain configurations are concealed within the airplane. So when you've seen these pictures of F-16s going in on bombing runs with missiles hanging off of the wings, the F-35 is designed to keep all of its armaments and its extra fuel tanks within the plane so that it has this sleek profile, which is almost invisible to radar.

I should note that in many situations, the F-35 is also going to have to carry bombs and things on the outside of its wings, because it needs the extra space. And so under a lot of situations, it won't be that invisible to radar. And some of the critics say the stealth technology that was built in really isn't going to live up to advertisements and has become - it was too expensive, really, for what we're actually getting out of this plane.

CONAN: It's interesting the - you mentioned the F-22 Raptor. That was a plane built with one purpose in mind. It's called an air-dominance fighter. It's supposed to be the top gun in the sky.

The F-35, on the other hand, was supposed to be a less-expensive, jack-of-all-trades. There were going to be versions for the Air Force, for the Marine Corps, for the Navy. And in your piece, you quoted some critics to say that by going to an all-purpose aircraft, it's going to replace as many as 10 of the different airframes that are currently in service. There are - it's not going to do any of those things particularly well. One of the critics you interviewed, Peter Goon of the think tank Air Power Australia, and he says the F-35 is just not going to be able to compete.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

PETER GOON: Other countries are doing what they should be doing, that is producing capabilities to defend their sovereign nations. But unfortunately, the capabilities they're presenting now are far superior to the JSF.

CONAN: And is there any way to know if the F-35 can compete with the top-of-the-line aircraft from China and Russia?

ABRAMSON: Well, it's tough for you and me and for the listeners to know whether it can actually compete, because some of these critics' information is based on obscure computer modeling of how the F-35 would compete against the Sukhoi or other advanced fighters from places like Russia and China, that are actually working on this technology. What the military says is that this plane does very well against all planes that are out there, and that the craft that we're talking about right now for - that Russia and China are working on, are still in the experimental phase, and that their airplanes really cannot do the variety of tasks that we were talking about.

So in addition to being a very good, if not excellent air superiority, dog-fighting kind of plane, the F-35 can also do ground support. So it can accompany troops into combat, basically, the way the famous A-10 Warthog would. It's also a carrier plane. It's also a plane that can do a vertical takeoff and vertical landings and short runway takeoffs, which the Marines need. So it has so many attributes, they say, that should really overcome any concerns about whether it's truly terrific in any one field.

CONAN: Then there is the issue of the cost. As you described in the piece, right now, the Air Force version would cost $130 million a copy, and tack on 30 million more for the Marine Corps variant.

ABRAMSON: Right. That's right. And that's a hugely expensive plane, and it's putting up into the - this plane up into the stratospheric levels that the F-22 was when the Department of Defense decided just a couple of years ago to cancel that program because it had gotten too expensive, and they thought wasn't really necessary since the Soviet Union had gone out of business, basically, and wasn't going to compete with it anymore.

You know, and so these cost issues around these big military programs are so complicated. You wonder how any human being can wrap their minds around them. This is a plane that was designed in the '90s. It was contracted in 2001. Now, 10 years later, the first planes are just being tested. And so we may not really know what the actual costs of these planes are until they're all out on the tarmac 20 years from now.

And some would say that Lockheed and maybe the military have structured the program in such a way that we can't ask these questions until it's already too late to cancel the plane. We canceled the F-22, and only 187 of them had been built. And may people in the military feel that that meant we bought too few of them to do any good, that we don't have enough of them - since they often have to be in repair and stuff - to be useful in combat. But, you know, the questions is: Does it do any good to come up with a program if you can't forecast the cost accurately?

The biggest argument that's made in the case of this plane is that when all of these - the 2,400 planes, it's a huge number - 2,400 planes that the military wants to buy for the U.S. alone, and several hundred for foreign militaries. When they have all been produced that lot number will help bring the actual cost of the plane down, which is basically an argument for saying, you know, buy more. They're cheaper.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Right.

ABRAMSON: But you save more in volume. And especially in times like right now, when the budget is really being taxed and Congress is looking for savings, it's a very difficult argument to swallow.

CONAN: And as Larry also reported, the costs are affected by how many of our allies buy how many of their planes. They've made commitments, but some are already delaying purchases or putting them off to reduce their costs, as well. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Christian's on the line with us from Wichita, an aviation capital. Go ahead.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you for taking my call. This has been tried before. In '61, Robert McNally(ph) started the TFX program that was supposed to build a multi-role fighter-bomber for both the Air Force and the Navy.

CONAN: I think you meant Robert McNamara.

CHRISTIAN: Yes, Robert McNamara, excuse me. The program was a disaster from the Navy's point of view and led to the development of the F-14. As former military, I can't say this is going to work. The mission requirements for the various branches of the military are so radical, that I don't think it's going to work. And I'll take your comments off the air.

CONAN: Yeah. The TFX that he refers to, Larry, became eventually the F-4. And as he mentioned, the Navy never liked it, never picked it up much and tried to move on as quickly as possible to something else.

ABRAMSON: Right. Well, that's a good point. The military certainly hopes that isn't going to happen again. But there are some indications that this program could run into similar problems. This - the F-35, as we mentioned, is - has a variant. This is one for Air Force, one for the Navy that has a tail hook for landing on carriers.

And then there's one for the Marines, which is very exotic because it can do these vertical landings that we're talking about. It basically lands like a helicopter, on a very small space. And that's a tough thing to do, as you know, Neal, getting all that thrust to lift a very heavy plane off the ground, and it's tough. And it has changed the shape of the plane. It's more visible to radar. It's almost double the cost of that particular design, and it still hasn't been fully tested. So you might say, well, maybe we should just have a whole separate plane that does that function the way we used to with the Harrier - which is still in use - and leave that exotic function for that plane so that we don't compromise this plane, which has some, you know, very important things that it has to do.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's national security correspondent Larry Abramson. He's currently on assignment in Jerusalem, but you may have heard his reports yesterday on what will be - if plans go ahead - the most expensive weapons procurement program in United States history, the F-35. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Paul on the line. Paul's with us from Panama City.

PAUL: Well, thank you for taking my call today.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PAUL: I've long been an advocate of multiuse instruments like this. I'm a former submariner, so it probably won't be any surprise that I think the submarine's probably the single most important vessel the Navy could be building because outside of launching aircraft, they can do everything every other vessel can do. And I think it's important that even though this - the F-35 and submarines or any other instrument that we're talking about might not be perfectly capable for every mission, we've got to realize that when we get into using these things, we are going to be using mass quantities of them. And we're not really going to be worried about perfection. We're going to be worried about fighting for our lives, and every bit of synergies that we can gain from instruments like the F-35 are going to be very important. I'll listen off air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks, Paul. And the argument, Larry, is as opposed to having parts and maintenance for all these different kinds of planes that - or all in the arsenal now, you're going to have parts and maintenance for one kind of a plane.

ABRAMSON: Right. It's the Southwest Airlines approach. You know, Southwest Airline only flies one form - kind of Boeing airliner, and they say they save a lot of money on parts, and that everywhere the plane goes, their mechanics know how to work on it. And, you know, there's a lot of good evidence to show that that part of the program may well be working. So you can have maintainers in the Navy, the Marines and the Air Force who can all be trained by the same equipment. I've seen some of this equipment at Eglin Air Force Base. And it's very impressive that they're developing new software programs so that people can learn in digital environments. All of the blueprints are digital. And it's a very clean way to start a new program.

Eighty percent of the parts between these three different variants are going to be common, not to mention the fact that the next time the allies, the Western allies go into some sort of campaign - say, in Libya - and have F-35s among them because the air forces of the Netherlands and Norway and other countries in NATO will be using them, they will know that they have common computer systems that can share information and, again, common parts and common maintenance issues. So, you know, that's a pretty good argument for saying let's reduce the number of weird aircraft designs that we have to take care of in a busy combat environment.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. This is Gary, Gary with us from Sacramento.

GARY: Hi. As a retired Air Force master sergeant who came into the Air Force about the same time the F-15 fighter jets did - and I was assigned to work on them as the avionics specialist in-shop - I'm concerned that no matter how fancy and high-tech it sounds right now, that we may be buying into - we should make sure we don't buy into the problems we bought into then, which was we were assured that the million-dollar test stations they gave us to repair those avionic systems would work. But those test stations hadn't been really proven before we bought into them, and bought them and paid for them.

And they spent a lot of time just collecting dust in our - inside our avionics shops because the repair systems in that just hadn't been tested, and yet the Air Force bought them. And then we bought and bought and bought - specialists from the companies that would just about live in our shops trying to work the bugs out.

CONAN: F-15 turned into a pretty good plane, though, Gary. But, anyway, Larry, he's got a point. This plane, as it was designed, in the old days, you would have competitors build different prototypes and have a fly-off and see whose plane was better. Well, that wasn't possible with the F-35. And all these computer-aided designs were supposed to make the development of the plane so much quicker and cleaner and cheaper. It didn't work out that way.

ABRAMSON: It hasn't worked out that way. Lockheed still says we're going to see that payoff someday. Yeah, part of the idea is that this plane is so heavily computerized, that if you need to fix something, rather than having to go in and redesign steel and aluminum, you'll basically just be able to change computer software. But the computer software has proven to be very unwieldy. There are millions and millions of lines of code, and some of the fixes that Lockheed is having to go back in at the request of the Air Force are turning to be - turning out to be very expensive.

So, again, maybe the next generation will see the returns from this approach. But all I can say is that the military says they keep learning from these experiences, and apparently, the American taxpayers keep paying for their learning experiences.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much for the call.

GARY: OK.

CONAN: And, Larry, finally, are there true believers?

ABRAMSON: Oh, yeah, there are. And, you know, the pilots are among the most enthusiastic, of course. I mean, you can't really ask for an objective impression of a plane from a pilot, because they get so excited about them. And the gentleman that you - whose tape you played, you know, was among the true believers. The people down at Eglin who are working in this inter-force environment - that is, they're training with Marines and Navy pilots - you know, it's just a totally unique experience for them. At the same time, they're also seeing a form, as I said, of digital training that wasn't really possible for the F-16. So they believe that this is going to be the first truly modern plane, in a lot of ways. And I think they're very excited about it.

CONAN: Larry Abramson, NPR national security correspondent, joined us via computer from Jerusalem. Larry, thanks very much.

ABRAMSON: Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, with a look back at the year 2012 in science. And Monday, Ari Shapiro will be here with a look at what farm bill extension means for farmers. I'll join you again on Tuesday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.