Defense: Fix or Kill

English: U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II join...
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The Lockheed-Martin F-22, the U.S. Air Force’s primary air superiority fighter (read, shoots down airplanes, sometimes attacks ground targets) is on the verge of becoming the most expensive hangar queen in history because the Air Force cannot figure out why the $143 million plane’s oxygen system has killed one pilot and nearly asphyxiated a dozen more. Air Force Lt. General Herb Carlisle, in a commendable burst of candor, suggested that the aircraft’s oxygen system may need a complete redesign.

Meanwhile, Lockheed-Martin’s other major fighter aircraft, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is facing troubles simply getting into service with the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marines. On Wednesday, CBS reported:

The best fighter pilots from the Air Force, Marines and Navy arrived in the Florida Panhandle last year to learn to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive, most advanced weapons program in U.S. history. They are still waiting.

Concerns about the stealth jets’ safety, cost overruns and questions about the entire program’s feasibility have delayed the training and left about 35 pilots mostly outside the cockpit. The most the pilots do with the nine F-35s at Eglin Air Force Base is occasionally taxi them and fire up the engines. Otherwise their training is limited to three F-35 flight simulators, classroom work and flights in older-model jets. Only a handful of test pilots get to fly the F-35s.

The day after that embarrassing report ran, the Air Force cleared the F-35 to fly on a very limited basis: clear weather, local area only, and for the first week only with experienced test pilots. For its part, the Navy is conducting its own, independent safety test program.

It gets worse. Japan, who has agreed to buy 42 F-35s for $122 million each, is now having second thoughts.

Japan may cancel orders for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jets if the price rises or deliveries are delayed, Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said on Wednesday, casting doubt on Tokyo’s choice of next-generation combat aircraft.

They are not alone. Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Turkey, Italy, and Denmark are all rethinking their commitment to the F-35 program.

I am as proud as any American of the outstanding quality of the U.S. arsenal, but as I learned at a young age, not every weapons system performs as advertised, and some prove inadequate or even lethal to their operators. This is a problem as old as warfare. What separates victors from vanquished, however, is the speed with which one’s logistics establishment can identify problems with a weapons system, rectify them, or kill the program and replace it.

The United States has produced its share of dog weapons in the past. The problem now is that we have fewer suppliers, fewer choices, and more political capital being spent on each system, making them increasingly difficult to kill even when they need to be eliminated. With all of the stalwart defense of both the F-22 and F-35 I have heard, I have never heard a congressman or an administration official draw a line and say “if things aren’t fixed by this time and this date, we’re going to cancel this system and buy something else.”

The DoD needs to learn to say these things, and to give itself the wherewithal to say them. A military equipped with white elephants is a plaything, not a combat force.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

5 thoughts on “Defense: Fix or Kill”

  1. The F-35 is one of those zombie weapons. No matter how many times the entire project is killed, some senator finds an excuse (usually jobs in his state) to dig up some more millions to bring it back to life.

    1. I agree. The Humvee is another great example. The vehicle should have been replaced after it proved a deathtrap in urban combat in Mogadishu in 1993. Instead, 19 years later, we’re sending our soldiers to fight in an urban combat operations in an up-armored SUV that was never intended to serve as a front-line combat vehicle.

      Now that we’ve had two decades of BRAC for base re-alignment in the military, I think we need a CRAC for contractor re-alignment.

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