The Process of Military Purchasing in the Free World–Who Wins, Who Loses?
You may not be a big fan of military procurement scandals, nor even of supersonic fighter jets. But the case of F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is massive–the largest government defense contract ever signed anywhere by anybody–and massively convoluted. It would be wonderfully amusing if it weren’t so bizarre and so monumentally costly that just reading the numbers can give you a nosebleed. By studying its ins and outs we can discover a lot about American government priorities and how their dubious values come into play. You will discover here just how smart they are–and how dumb they think we are.
What Exactly Is the F-35 Lightning II (aka the Joint Strike Fighter) Program?
In the mid-1990s, when the United States Department of Defense began to think about their next generation of fighter aircraft, they selected two prestigious manufacturers, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to present projects and prototypes for their versions of the new Joint Strike Fighter, “joint” because US government experts (“expert:” a stranger with a briefcase) had previously decided it would be more efficient to use a single airframe to create three “variants,” one each for the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force. According to most of the F-35’s many subsequent critics, it was this seemingly arbitrary decision to order a multi-purpose (“joint”) combat airplane that underlay all the problems that followed. They allege that it would have been cheaper and better to build three different aircraft, each one suited specifically to the unique needs of the respective services. At the time, however, before the inevitable compromises that had to be incorporated to satisfy three very different customers, government military procurement experts were immovable, though they were gravely mistaken. Aviation history had seen multi-purpose airplanes before and none of them had worked very well.
According to the F-35 official website, f-35.com, the F-35 is the United States’s “multi-variant, multirole fifth-generation fighter aircraft.” Is it a plane or a program? They’re pitching it as both, a fighter plane for the 21st century and curious program for developing and selling it. According to the Department of Defense’s description, the F-35 “combines advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” As of this writing (June 2018) three variants of the F-35 are beginning to replace the A-10 and F-16 for the U.S. Air Force, the F/A-18 for the U.S. Navy, the F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier for the U.S. Marine Corps, and a variety of fighters for at least ten other potential and actual client countries.”
This is the sales pitch. In fact, the F-35 is neither very fast nor very agile. As for “fully-fused sensor information” and “advanced sustainment,” those terms are about as specious as a “Gluten Free” guarantee on a can of tennis balls.
Seminal fighter pilot, strategist and tactician, John Boyd; defense analysts Tom Christie, Pierre Sprey, Chuck Myers; test pilot Col. Everest Riccioni and aeronautical engineer Harry Hillaker formed the core of the self-dubbed “Fighter Mafia” which worked behind the scenes in the late 1960s to pursue a lightweight fighter as an alternative to the F-15. (They had a hand in the creation of the F-15, the F-16 and the A-10.) Their assertions were that:
- Air Force generals established the wrong criteria for combat effectiveness, ignoring combat history.
- High technology and the focus on “higher, faster, and farther” increases costs and decreases effectiveness. The mafia argued for cheaper and better planes.
- Air Force bureaucracies were corrupt as they did not conduct honest testing on weapons before buying them and deploying them in the field.
- The focus should be on close air support and the use of combined arms to support maneuver warfare rather than interdiction bombing.
- Multi-role and multi-mission capability compromises the plane.
- Beyond-visual-range combat was a fantasy.
All of these Fighter Mafia reservations are still valid and some of these old timers are still activists. The most visible one, and perhaps the most engaging is Pierre Sprey. Sprey, one of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s whiz kids in the 60s and 70s and later a consultant on defense issues, is today one of the F-35’s leading critics. Sprey sums up briefly the F-35’s problems: “It can’t turn, can’t climb and can’t run. It’s a turkey.”
F-35 Believers and Non-Believers
What are its real objectives? Despite all the hoopla about its stunning combat qualities, the truth is that they still haven’t completed the final testing, so they don’t know if it’s going to work. What we do know is that the initial tests ran up against many problems, from cracks in the airframe to serious software problems. As for objectives, Pierre Sprey says, “The objective is clear. It’s a device to funnel many billions of dollars to Lockheed Martin.”
Who criticizes it? Any qualified person who examines the aircraft and its “program” with a clear, unbiased eye criticizes them. Who defends it? Anybody who has his or her snout in the government financing trough defends it. It’s easy to discern which is which by reading just the first couple of paragraphs of any article on the subject.
What’s “The Program?”
Let’s take a look at the facts. (This facts-based approach sounds too obvious to even mention but, in the F-35 shell game, it’s essential that it be clearly stipulated.) Because most of the critically important information used in the procurement, development and sales of the F-35 in the early days–and even today–was not properly “information.” It was projections, more or less educated guesses, extrapolations from existing aircraft, suppression of uncomfortable actual facts and industrial quantities of good-old-fashioned institutional salesmanship. And if the Americans excel in anything it’s sales engineering.
An American friend of ours who had a long career as a tech sales manager said something I’ve never forgotten. “The secret of success in this business is to sell it, then build it.” Which is what Lockheed Martin and the Defense Department have done with the F-35 Lightning II. When they made their first sales presentations they didn’t even have a product. They had a mockup–a model airplane. It takes a lot of cheek to sell a papier–mâché fighter plane. Their paper airplane was adorned, of course, with a lot of projections promises and patriotism.
At this point we have to take our hats off to the Americans’ characteristic creativity and chutzpah. Aware that their aircraft was nowhere close to being a reality they sold their potential clients on becoming “co-developers” of what was sure to become the world’s finest fighter plane, filled with high-tech features that other countries had not even dreamed of. The Americans themselves had dreamed of these jazzy new features but they had never built most of them, let alone test their validity up in the air.
Update on F-35 progress, February. 2021.