The defense department’s proposal to drastically reduce the rate at which F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will be built over the next five years may set a new land speed record for federal bureaucrats. Who would have believed it was possible to develop the nation’s most important new weapons program this slowly? According to Andrea Shalal-Esa of Reuters, the umpteenth restructure of the F-35 program will delete 179 fighters from production plans between 2013 and 2017, cutting the number of planes manufactured for U.S. users during the period from 423 to 244. This presumably means we can look forward to lots more op-ed pieces about how pricey the F-35 is, since the cost of each one goes up when the government insists on building them at uneconomically low rates.
Policymakers argue that the program needs to be slowed down so more testing can be done to identify problems that might lead to costly rework. While I certainly wouldn’t want to deny personnel in the Pentagon’s overgrown testing bureaucracy the opportunity to close out their home mortgages and get that last kid through college, this administration always seems to have yet another reason why it can’t stick to the F-35 business plan that was conceived a decade ago to hold down program costs. Instead, it follows the typical Washington practice of ignoring bills that come due after its watch. Unfortunately, some of those bills will arrive in the mailboxes of overseas partners that the White House is counting on to help implement its new Asia-Pacific strategy.
Sometime soon, those partners are going to start complaining about the timid, wasteful way that Secretary Panetta’s subordinates have managed the F-35 program — especially before he arrived in the Pentagon’s fabled E-Ring and embraced the program. By repeatedly slowing the Joint Strike Fighter program, those subordinates have assured that total program costs will keep rising, deliveries will occur later than planned, and each plane will cost much more than it had to. If we’re lucky, no big threats will come along requiring that America’s overseas partners have large numbers of stealthy fighters to execute their part of the coalition warfare plan. If we’re not lucky, then the costs of losing or dragging out a future conflict for lack of survivable air power will make today’s savings from slow-rolling the program look myopic. Either way, it’s pretty clear the planes will end up costing more than necessary and the program won’t be making a contribution to the president’s big export push anytime soon. But hey, this is the Pentagon — we don’t do trade policy here, and our minds go blank after the next five budget years.