An F-35A Joint Strike Fighter from the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., flies over coastline there on Sept. 19. A new study released by a think tank says many defense experts believe the Pentagon should decrease the number of F-35s it will purchase, or even cancel the program. (Master Sgt Jeremy Lock / Air Force)
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Defense experts recommend scaling back purchases of the F-35 joint strike fighter or canceling the program altogether, according to a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
Over the summer, the center had experts from Congress, the Defense Department, defense industry and elsewhere look for sensible cuts to defense spending that would save roughly the same amount of money as sequestration, the automatic cuts set to kick in next year if Congress fails to reach an agreement on how to cut the deficit.
The experts formed five teams that looked for ways to trim more than $500 billion in defense spending over the next decade. The teams recommended curtailing F-35 procurement by between 120 and 360 aircraft, and one team recommended canceling the program.
The Air Force plans to buy 1,763 F-35s over the next 25 years. Officially, each plane costs $80 million, but if you include research and development and other associated costs, the F-35's price tag becomes much more expensive.
Given future challenges, the experts thought the Defense Department needs to put more money into long-range bombers and stealthy unmanned drones, which can survive in contested airspace, said Mark Gunzinger, one of the report's co-authors, in speaking with reporters at a roundtable Nov. 27.
To pay for these aircraft, the teams recommended cutting F-35 procurement over the next 10 years, said Gunzinger, who served as a senior adviser to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
"Their reasoning was, ‘Well, that might give time for the program to mature a little bit more before we proceed with full-scale procurement,' " he said.
The experts thought that the need for shorter-range aircraft will diminish going forward as the U.S. faces "anti-access area-denial" environments in which enemies can prevent U.S. forces from massing nearby by using long-range weapons to destroy U.S. air bases, aircraft carriers and aerial tankers, Gunzinger said.
"DoD, real-world, is pouring billions of dollars into fighter aircraft that will be able to survive in the air, but their bases won't be survivable," he said. "Perhaps you need to begin to question how much we're putting into that particular capability and whether we want to change the overall mix of our combat air forces toward a better balance of long- and short-range capabilities."
The Air Force believes the F-35 is "critical to defeat 21st-century threats" and is well-suited to dominate contested airspace, said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Dorrian.
"As the Air Force's next 5th generation fighter, the F-35 brings next-generation capability with stealth, maneuverability and air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities," Dorrian said in an email. "In addition, [it has] superior range, cutting-edge avionics and an unparalleled sensor package and the F-35 has much more combat effectiveness than its predecessors."
Lockheed Martin, lead contractor on the F-35, declined comment on any "speculative reports."
"Our top priority is to deliver the F-35s 5th generation capability to our U.S. government customers, international partners and [Foreign Military Sales] countries while continuing to reduce overall costs," said company spokesman Michael Rein, in an email.
War's changing shape
Looking forward, the experts believed the U.S. military would fight future wars differently from the conflicts of the past decade, said Todd Harrison, the report's other author.
"The team that cut the JSF — canceled it all the way — they actually invested a lot of new resources in stealthy UAVs for strike and surveillance, I think land- and carrier-based," Harrison said. "So it's a different force, so you've got different capabilities — you've got to have longer range, those platforms."
The report comes amid the prospect of sequestration or other cuts to defense spending, which could put the Air Force in a no-win situation.
"The biggest concern I have is that the trade space will eventually come down to modernization or readiness — terrible trade space for a military service to be operating in," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told "This Week in Defense News" in September.
The Air Force is working with Lockheed Martin to determine the actual costs of flying the aircraft, Welsh said.
"It's critical that we understand this because we have to operate this in a major way: 1,763 aircraft times the number of flying hours we require per pilot per year is a lot of money," he said.
While there is an argument for buying fewer F-35s, the idea of getting rid of them is reminiscent of past arguments that tactical air power is obsolete, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.
"People have been predicting the end of tactical air power since 1936: ‘The bomber will always get through, you don't need that stupid Spitfire, why are you even building those Spitfires?'" Aboulafia said.
It's true that the Defense Department does need to put an emphasis on long-range aircraft, but changing the entire inventory of aircraft based on the strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region seems like "a bit of an overreaction," he said.