The Department of Defense in conducting a strategic review in order to determine where funding can be cut without impairing the nation’s global military posture. The review could result in reducing the number of Navy aircraft carriers, terminating several Army vehicle programs, and trimming the number of amphibious warfare vessels available to the Marine Corps. The joint force can probably absorb all of these changes without seeing its global reach greatly diminished. However, if the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is significantly reduced, it’s “game over” for America’s global military posture.
Very few politicians or pundits seem to grasp the pivotal role that F-35 plays in future military plans. In fact, it is the program most frequently cited as a potential bill-payer for other priorities — partly because it is the biggest, and partly because many commentators don’t know the names of other major weapons programs. But the reason the F-35 program is so big is that it must meet the modernization needs of three different military services, and if any of them fails to receive the requisite number of aircraft, that service will cease being an effective fighting force in the future.
In the case of the Air Force, the F-35 has become the main tool for assuring global air dominance through mid-century. That role might have gone to the more powerful F-22 Raptor, but the Raptor was prematurely terminated at a fraction of the service’s operational requirement, leaving F-35 as the only survivable tactical aircraft still in production. In the case of the Navy, the stealth and reach of the F-35 are the only guarantee its pilots will be able to operate effectively in hostile airspace 20 years from today. And in the case of the Marine Corps, loss of the vertical-takeoff version of F-35 would eliminate any possibility of being able to implement future warfighting plans.
Thus, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the core initiative assuring that America will remain the world’s dominant military power. Aside from assuring the integrity of the nation’s nuclear deterrent, there is no other program so crucial to future national security. However, you would never guess that to contemplate the perverse way in which the Obama Administration has gone about managing the program. It has burdened the F-35 with lengthy delays, superfluous flight tests, and specious cost assessments that collectively have weakened the faith of Congress and allies in the health of the program. For instance, it recently projected that keeping the plane in a high state of readiness over the next 50 years would cost a trillion dollars, a totally inaccurate estimate driven mainly by imaginary inflation numbers.
What this pattern reflects is an ingrown acquisition culture so absorbed by its own internal rhythms that it has lost touch with larger purposes. It says it is saving taxpayers money when in fact it is driving up costs and delaying production to a point where the business case for its most important weapons program has been significantly weakened. Such behavior may help political appointees to get promotions, but over the longer term it will contribute to America’s military decline and ultimately get warfighters killed. We should all fervently hope that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta imposes some discipline on this system before it destroys the only program that can assure command of the air for the next two generations. If F-35 falters, there is no Plan B to keep America on top.
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