Last week, Time magazine published a lengthy diatribe against the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program, the F-35 fighter. The plane is being built in three versions to meet the diverse warfighting needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. If it is successful, America can look forward to another four decades of global air dominance — the warfighting edge that explains why no U.S. ground troops have been killed by hostile aircraft in 60 years. If the program falters, there is no way that the Pentagon’s aging fleet of tactical aircraft can deliver that kind of protection through mid-century.
So the stakes are very high. But you’d never know that from the sloppy job that Time did on the story. For instance, the piece says that the short range of the Navy’s F-35s will require aircraft carriers to “sail close to enemy shores.” In reality, the F-35 will deliver about 40% more combat radius than the Navy planes it is replacing. Elsewhere, it states that a stealthy jet like the F-35 “requires sacrifices in range, flying time and weapons-carrying capability.” But the most common version of F-35, the Air Force variant, has a combat radius 25% greater than that of the non-stealthy F-16s it will replace while carrying a bigger bomb-load; in some scenarios, F-35 can carry over three times the bomb-load of an F-16. And it asserts that the plane’s “squat fuselage” forced designers to put the tailhook of the Navy version in a location where it doesn’t work well, without noting that the tailhook issue has been solved.
The Time story is full of misleading statements. It says that the advent of unmanned drones “makes the idea of flying a human through flak and missiles seem quaint,” without mentioning that drones can’t survive when subjected to flak or missile fire. It cites a former official saying the Air Force refused to consider purchasing the longer-range Navy version of the plane without noting that the Navy version costs more and is poorly suited to Air Force needs. It complains about a supposed doubling in costs while failing to note that the cost of the most common version has fallen in each successive production lot, and is on track to match that of the legacy F-16 fighter at the end of the second Obama Administration. It asserts the high-tech helmet worn by F-35 pilots is “plagued with problems,” without acknowledging that fixes have been found and even without fixes, the helmets are better than anything being used today.
What readers get instead of a thoughtful assessment is a strung-together collection of disconnected facts, often taken out of context, that isn’t even internally consistent much less balanced. For instance, the complaint about the Air Force failing to consider purchasing the longer-range Navy version of F-35 comes one paragraph after a complaint about the short range of the Navy version. That’s what happens when your only goal is to make the strongest case for a preconceived conclusion. So the fact that three military services have stuck with the F-35 program through five presidential administrations is barely mentioned; the fact that all of America’s future adversaries are likely to be better equipped with air defenses than Al Qaeda or the Taliban gets short shrift; and the admission that “pilots love the F-35″ is rendered inexplicable by all the negatives offered elsewhere in the story.
It is interesting that former naval aviator and war hero John McCain is not quoted in Time‘s diatribe, since he is the Senate’s most persistent critic of Pentagon contractors. McCain gets a brief mention in a vignette about the opening of the first F-35 operating base, but nothing is reported about what the Senator said in his remarks at the ceremony. Maybe that’s because McCain cited a Government Accountability Office study that spoke favorably about the program. Or maybe it’s because McCain went on to say F-35 “may be the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world.” Funny how Time didn’t think that was worth mentioning.