Should Congress cut food stamps or the F-35?

It’s not that simple, of course, but lawmakers must make billions of dollars in cuts to tame exploding federal debt by the end of the year, and Republicans and Democrats have begun wrestling again over whether to slash more funding from defense or domestic programs.

The F-35 is built primarily in Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant. Courtesy Lockheed Martin

The Pentagon has already agreed to cut $450 billion over the next 10 years. An additional $550 billion is expected to be cut from defense in January, along with corresponding cuts to domestic spending, because Congress’ bipartisan “super-committee” failed last year to agree on a long-term budget that reduces the national deficit.


Congress could still make cuts elsewhere, but so far the debate has been predictably polarized.

House Republicans passed a budget in May that tore out funding for food stamps, children’s healthcare, hospitals that serve the poor, and Medicaid –– all to save the Pentagon from the automatic cuts.

That budget is dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the battle could define the 2012 elections, including the presidential race.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the additional cuts could spell disaster for the country’s defense and cited weapons systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35 program should be kept fully intact, said Thompson — there are other ways to save money in the Pentagon budget.

For critics, the F-35 has become the foremost example of wasteful defense spending. The U.S. military should retool with new aircraft, but the F-35 isn’t the best tool, and it’s certainly not an affordable one, said Wheeler, who worked with national security issues on Capitol Hill for 31 years.

The plane’s advocates, like Thompson, are in a state of denial, Wheeler said. Because it’s one of the most expensive programs in the federal budget, deep cuts to the F-35 program should be on the table, he said. It’s unlikely the program will be tossed entirely, as he thinks it should be, but at least it could be cut back.

“The airplane is a disaster, and they refuse to accept that,” Wheeler said of the F-35 program’s supporters in Congress. “They’re still in the whining stage rather than acknowledging that the program is in serious, serious trouble.”

Saving money by cutting back the F-35 program isn’t so easy. The Pentagon has already rolled back its order of F-35s from 2,700 planes to 2,400.

If there is no political will to scrap the program altogether, saving money will require reducing the number of ordered planes by more than a thousand, not hundreds, said Hartung.

Technically, the Pentagon has cut about $20 billion from the program over the last two years, though that doesn’t amount to real savings, he said.

It’s just “kicking the money down the road a bit,” Hartung said. “They have to acknowledge that there’s actual problems they have to fix. But they’re still committed to $10 billion a year or so.”

Some members of Congress have grown irate. Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan  Democrat, told Bloomberg this month that he’s “got plenty of concerns” and called Boeing’s F-18 fighter jet a “backup.” Levin’s office didn’t return calls.

Boeing spokesperson Philip Carder wouldn’t comment on whether the F-18 Super Hornet is considered a backup to the F-35, but called the plane a “model program” that “delivers ahead of schedule and on-budget.” Boeing’s top fighter jet is used exclusively by the U.S. Navy, which has denied that the F-18 is a backup plan for the F-35 while simultaneously purchasing additional Super Hornets after repeated delays with the F-35 program.

That adds to fears that Lockheed’s defense contracts are in the government’s crosshairs. As a result, the company is spending plenty of money trying to convince Congress to keep it in the black.

The contractor increased its political donations by 9 percent for the 2012 election compared to 2010, according to the Federal Election Commission. The company’s political action committee spent $2.26 million, much of that going to members of Congressional defense committees.

Fort Worth’s own members of Congress got their share. U.S. Rep. Kay Granger received $35,700 from Lockheed during this election cycle. The company was her biggest contributor. The company donated only slightly less to Senator John Cornyn, who got $30,300.

Neither of them responded to calls seeking comment for this story.


In any press release from Lockheed Martin, the last paragraph mentions the 123,000 people employed by the company worldwide.

“Bang! That’s political clout,” Hellman said. “That is the tension that provides some of the momentum for maintaining programs that everybody acknowledges are of dubious merit. That tension is particularly acute right now, when any job is an important job.”

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 program represents more than 5,800 jobs in Fort Worth, including line workers, engineers, and support staff. It pays for another 2,000 workers at Lockheed’s two other F-35 facilities in Marietta, Ga., and Palmdale, Calif.

“If you spend money on the F-35, you’re going to have a positive effect on the Fort Worth economy, but that’s not why you’re buying it. You’re buying it to defend the economy from attackers,” Thompson said.

The workers who went on strike in Fort Worth want to make the F-35 program successful, not just because their livelihood likely depends on it, but also for their own pride as skilled builders of fighter jets, said Bob Wood, a union spokesman for District Lodge 776 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

“What we should be worried about is getting the program on track,” he said. “We shouldn’t be worried about trying to take benefits from the workers.”

Ditching the F-35 doesn’t have to be a job-killer, Hellman said.

“For the same amount of money, we can buy at least as many previous, updated models,” he said. “In theory, it could create more jobs, more airplanes, cost less money. These are proven technologies.”

That would include the F-16, which Lockheed still produces in Fort Worth.

Thompson said that there are other, better ways of stimulating the economy, and though he believes the plane will ultimately be affordable, building it is about national security, not squeezing the most out of every dollar.

“Despite the persistent negativism of F-35 coverage in the national media, the program is progressing steadily,” Thompson wrote in a Forbes column this month. “That’s a good thing, because none of the U.S. military services and overseas allies participating in the program has a backup plan for maintaining air dominance if it falters.”

And therein lies the deeper truth about the F-35, Astore said. Though cutting the program altogether would be prudent, it won’t happen because producing warplanes is one of the few industries in which the U.S. still leads the world, he said.

Despite the strike and increasing pressure from the Pentagon, Lockheed’s profits grew by 20 percent in the first quarter of this year.

The F-35 is the defense equivalent of huge financial institutions that are “too big to fail,” Astore said, even when they’ve been mismanaged and their value to the nation’s health is questionable.

There’s no one competing with Lockheed, so where’s the incentive to cut costs?

“The U.S. military can bluster all they want about limiting costs,” he said, “but the reality is that Lockheed Martin is in the cockpit and flying this contract.”


  1. The U.S. military should retool with new aircraft, how about develop the new single-seat F-15F variant (based on the two-seat F-15E) to replace the F-15C/Ds, in a similar way the Sukhoi Co. developed the Su-35S Super Flanker-E.

    With new updates for the Eagle such as.

    1. APG-82 AESA fire control radar.

    2. 2D or 3D thrust vectoring F100-PW-232 or F110-GE-132 engines with supercruising mode as a consideration.

    3. DEWS (Digital Electronic Warfare System) or defensible EWSP jammers.

    4. NG (Next Generation) 3-D touch screen cockpit display.

    5. Digital fly-by-wire flight control system.

    6. IRST sensor pod and CFB (Conformal Weapons Bay) etc.

    One of the F-15 engineers from the DoD Buzz mentioned the samething about develop the new single-seat Eagle as a perfect replacement for the existing F-15C/D’s.

    So they are some of the options that can be looked at.

    According to Richard Banholzer, Boeing’s Director of Business Development for the Air Force Fighters and Weapons, was a former USAF F-15A, F-15C and F-15E pilot and test pilot, with 2,000 hours on the F-4 Phantom II and 1,900 hours on F-15s.

    He claims the F-15 still has a vital role to play (which I agree). The F-22 Raptor, with their greater stealth, Raptors might be the aircraft of choice to penetrate particularly high-threat zones.

    However, on the “friendly” side or low to medium threat zones of the forward edge of the battle area – for cruise missile defence, defending high value assets and if the rules of engagement dictate close-in-engagement – the F-15 may be a better choice. So a mixed force of Eagles and Raptors would present a potent combination of flexibility and capability which is a perfect idea to complement with each other.

    Plus restart the F-22 production line.

  2. The F-35 Joint Strike Failure is certainly not a true 5th Generation Fighter, the aircraft is a boondoggle. It’s now time to throw the turkey in the trash bin and see the rotten damn thing in the fire and burn for good.

    The United States is making a gigantic investment in the F-35, billed by its advocates as the next — by their count the fifth — generation of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat aircraft. Claimed to be near invisible to radar and able to dominate any future battlefield, the F-35 will replace most of the air-combat aircraft in the inventories of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and at least nine foreign allies, and it will be in those inventories for the next 55 years. It’s no secret, however, that the program — the most expensive in American history — is a calamity.

    This month, we learned that the Pentagon has increased the price tag for the F-35 by another $289 million — just the latest in a long string of cost increases — and that the program is expected to account for a whopping 38 percent of Pentagon procurement for defence programs, assuming its cost will grow no more. Its many problems are acknowledged by its listing in proposals for Pentagon spending reductions by leaders from across the political spectrum, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and budget gurus such as former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Alice Rivlin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and Office of Management and Budget.

    How bad is it? A review of the F-35′s cost, schedule, and performance — three essential measures of any Pentagon program — shows the problems are fundamental and still growing.

    First, with regard to cost — a particularly important factor in what politicians keep saying is an austere defence budget environment — the F-35 is simply unaffordable. Although the plane was originally billed as a low-cost solution, major cost increases have plagued the program throughout the last decade. Last year, Pentagon leadership told Congress the acquisition price had increased another 16 percent, from $328.3 billion to $379.4 billion for the 2,457 aircraft to be bought. Not to worry, however — they pledged to finally reverse the growth.

    The result? This February, the price increased another 4 percent to $395.7 billion and then even further in April. Don’t expect the cost overruns to end there: The test program is only 20 percent complete, the Government Accountability Office has reported, and the toughest tests are yet to come. Overall, the program’s cost has grown 75 percent from its original 2001 estimate of $226.5 billion — and that was for a larger buy of 2,866 aircraft.

    Hundreds of F-35s will be built before 2019, when initial testing is complete. The additional cost to engineer modifications to fix the inevitable deficiencies that will be uncovered is unknown, but it is sure to exceed the $534 million already known from tests so far. The total program unit cost for each individual F-35, now at $161 million, is only a temporary plateau. Expect yet another increase in early 2013, when a new round of budget restrictions is sure to hit the Pentagon, and the F-35 will take more hits in the form of reducing the numbers to be bought, thereby increasing the unit cost of each plane.

    A final note on expense: The F-35 will actually cost multiples of the $395.7 billion cited above. That is the current estimate only to acquire it, not the full life-cycle cost to operate it. The current appraisal for operations and support is $1.1 trillion — making for a grand total of $1.5 trillion, or more than the annual GDP of Spain. And that estimate is wildly optimistic: It assumes the F-35 will only be 42 percent more expensive to operate than an F-16, but the F-35 is much more complex. The only other “fifth generation” aircraft, the F-22 from the same manufacturer, is in some respects less complex than the F-35, but in 2010, it cost 300 percent more to operate per hour than the F-16. To be very conservative, expect the F-35 to be twice the operating and support cost of the F-16. Already unaffordable, the F-35′s price is headed in one direction — due north.

    The F-35 isn’t only expensive — it’s way behind schedule. The first plan was to have an initial batch of F-35s available for combat in 2010. Then first deployment was to be 2012. More recently, the military services have said the deployment date is “to be determined.” A new target date of 2019 has been informally suggested in testimony — almost 10 years late.

    If the F-35′s performance were spectacular, it might be worth the cost and wait. But it is not. Even if the aircraft lived up to its original specifications — and it will not — it would be a huge disappointment. The reason it is such a mediocrity also explains why it is unaffordable and, for years to come, unobtainable.

    In discussing the F-35 with aviation and acquisition experts — some responsible for highly successful aircraft such as the F-16 and the A-10, and others with decades of experience inside the Pentagon and years of direct observation of the F-35′s early history — I learned that the F-35′s problems are built into its very DNA.

    The design was born in the late 1980s in the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon agency that has earned an undeserved reputation for astute innovation. It emerged as a proposal for a very short take-off and vertical-landing aircraft (known as “STOVL”) that would also be supersonic. This required an airframe design that — simultaneously — wanted to be short, even stumpy, and single-engine (STOVL), and also sleek, long, and with lots of excess power, usually with twin engines.

    President Bill Clinton’s Pentagon bogged down the already compromised design concept further by adding the requirement that it should be a multirole aircraft — both an air-to-air fighter and a bomber. This required more difficult trade-offs between agility and low weight, and the characteristics of an airframe optimised to carry heavy loads. Clinton-era officials also layered on “stealth,” imposing additional aerodynamic shape requirements and maintenance-intensive skin coatings to reduce radar reflections. They also added two separate weapons bays, which increase permanent weight and drag, to hide onboard missiles and bombs from radars. On top of all that, they made it multi-service, requiring still more trade-offs to accommodate more differing, but exacting, needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.

    Finally, again during the Clinton administration, the advocates composed a highly “concurrent” acquisition strategy. That meant hundreds of copies of the F-35 would be produced, and the financial and political commitments would be made, before the test results showed just what was being bought.

    This grotesquely unpromising plan has already resulted in multitudes of problems — and 80 percent of the flight testing remains. A virtual flying piano, the F-35 lacks the F-15′s and F-16′s agility in the air-to-air mode and the F-111 and F-15E’s range and payload in the bombing mode, and it can’t even begin to compare to the A-10 at low-altitude close air support for troops engaged in combat. Worse yet, it won’t be able to get into the air as often to perform any mission — or just as importantly, to train pilots — because its complexity prolongs maintenance and limits availability. The aircraft most like the F-35, the F-22, was able to get into the air on average for only 15 hours per month in 2010 when it was fully operational. (In 2011, the F-22 was grounded for almost five months and flew even less.)

    This mediocrity is not overcome by the F-35′s “fifth-generation” characteristics, the most prominent of which is its “stealth.” Despite what many believe, “stealth” is not invisibility to radar; it is limited-detection ranges against some radar types at some angles. Put another way, certain radars, some of them quite antiquated, can see “stealthy” aircraft at quite long ranges, and even the susceptible radars can see the F-35 at certain angles. The ultimate demonstration of this shortcoming occurred in the 1999 Kosovo war, when 1960s vintage Soviet radar and missile equipment shot down a “stealthy” F-117 bomber and severely damaged a second.

    The back end of the F-35 in full afterburner is something like 1600 degrees (Fahrenheit). In terms of temperature, aluminium combusts at 1100. You are talking about something really, really hot. If you have got a dirty big sensor on the front of your Su-35 or your PAK-FA or whatever, it lights up like Christmas lights and there is nothing you can do about it. And the plume, because of the symmetric exhaust, is all over the place. It is not shielded, it is not ducted in any useful way.

    I’m all familiar with these effusive comments that I see in the media about how wonderful the JSF is—it is a stealth fighter; it is invisible to enemy radar—but the reality is that stealth is not as much about invisibility but much more about being harder to detect than an ordinary aeroplane.

    The typical measures that are applied are: what radars are you stealthy against and from what direction are you stealthy against that radar? There are various models, analogies or explanations that are used, but I think the simplest one is that different radars, because of how they are built, need different stealth characteristics to beat them. If we look at the current range of stealth aircraft out there, the ones that are difficult to see from nearly all directions and by a wide range of radars, are the big B-2A Spirit and the F-22 Raptor. The JSF really only has performance that would qualify as stealthy in the direction of over the aircraft’s nose. In other words, it is hard to see from the front but if you look at the aircraft from the sides or behind and below—looking up at it—the aircraft is in many instances only marginally better than a conventional aircraft.

    The 55Zh6M Nebo M. It is a multi-band “counter-stealth radar”. The VHF band element in that radar will detect the F-35A at a distance of tens of miles. That is without a doubt. What that means is that the aircraft is going to be in great difficulty if it tries to deal with what I call a modern or contemporary threat. The same is also true when you deal with these newer stealth fighters, because they are designed to compete with the F-22. They fly higher; they are faster and more agile—much, much more agile. They have more powerful radars and much, much better antenna packages for other sensors. The lemon F-35 is not meeting its specifications and its specifications are inadequate to deal with the changed environment.

    But if you are putting F-35 up against the newer generation of much, much more powerful Russian radars and some of the newer Chinese radars, the aircraft is quite detectable, especially from behind, the upper side and from the lower sides as well.

    The bottom line: The F-35 is not the wonder its advocates claim. It is a gigantic performance disappointment, and in some respects a step backward. The problems, integral to the design, cannot be fixed without starting from a clean sheet of paper.

    It’s time for Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, the U.S. military services, the Congress and pro-JSF advocates: The F-35 is an unaffordable mediocrity, and the program will not be fixed by any combination of hardware tweaks or cost-control projects. There is only one thing to do with the F-35: Junk it. America’s air forces deserve a much better aircraft, and the taxpayers deserve a much cheaper one. The dustbin awaits.

    PS The US, the allies including Australia don’t need the F-35. The aircraft is a absolute complete failure and will be useless in the future conflicts.

    For more information go to the Air Power Australia.

  3. Loren Thompson

    If the F-35 was to be able to meet its specifications, the aircraft will have the ability of going up against a 1980s Soviet air defence system of the type that we saw destroyed very effectively in Libya 12 months ago, the F-35 would be reasonably be effective in that environment, because these older Soviet radars would not see it. Now the environment has changed the Russians and some of the Chinese are equipped with much more powerful “counter stealth radars” to able to detect the F-35, especially from behind, the upper side and from the lower sides as well, which is why the F-35 has “partial stealth”.

    Plus the F-35 is also inferior to the Sukhoi Su-27/30 Flanker family, PAK-FA and J-20 Mighty Dragon aircraft in Beyond Visual Range and Within Visual Range combat etc.

    The requirement for the F-35 is only Mach 1.6 you won’t be able to survive because you’ll be placed at a significant disadvantage to Mach 2.4 aircraft such as the super cruising Sukhoi and upcoming J-20. The wing and engine intake geometry is optimised for sub-sonic flight – so a more powerful engine cannot fix the problem even if one would fit in the small JSF airframe. In stealth combat configuration, the F-35 aerodynamically doesn’t and will never be able to outperform all other combat-configured 4th, 4.5, 4++ and 5th generation aircraft in top-end supersonic acceleration, loiter, combat radius, larger weapons payload and more powerful/bigger AESA fire control radar/sensors. This doesn’t allow unprecedented see/shoot first and combat radius advantages.

    The situation by relying only on stealth, AESA radar, advanced sensors, networking, data fusion capabilities, BVR AAMs and cruise missiles as stand-off while flying at straight and level with very gentle manoeuvres of presents of guns or missiles the JSF will be a “dead duck”. It doesn’t work that way which again you’ll be placed at a significant disadvantage of being shot down while being chased by a Mach 2 Sukhoi and J-20 that the F/A-18E/F and F-35 can’t escape. Even though fighters are rarely used at mach 2 for air-to-air combat or ground attack, but I still believe it is still needed for survivability because it enhances both engagements of flying into the target area and destroying the high threat targets, and escape from, known threats as to get out of the fight as quick as possible to survive.

  4. This is not the first time the Defense Dept. has tried to build a one size fits all fighter. Back in the early 1960’s, there was the F111. It was plagued with problems and cost overruns & it was also built in Ft. Worth by General Dynamics at the time. Eventually, only the Air Force used the plane.