A casual observer of recent spending decisions made by defense secretary Robert Gates could easily conclude he is indifferent to military technology. He proposes termination of weapons programs and hiring of additional personnel with such regularity that the Pentagon seems to be headed for the same kind of labor-intensive defense posture traditionally favored by under-developed countries. But this week he made a distinct break from that pattern, traveling to the F-35 fighter plant in Fort Worth, Texas to endorse the next-generation plane and praise progress made to date on the program. If his goal was to counter the impression that he never saw a weapons system he liked, then he has succeeded.
F-35 is by far the biggest weapons program in the Pentagon’s modernization plan, because it was conceived to replace most of the aging tactical aircraft of three U.S. services and at least nine allies with a single airframe in multiple variants. The plane is designed to be versatile and survivable while halting the upward spiral in prices that has characterized each new generation of fighters. The unusually positive views about the program that Gates expressed in Fort Worth (“most of the high-risk elements associated with this developmental program are largely behind us”) signal that he is taking ownership of the program — in effect, making it part of his legacy as defense secretary.
On the merits, Gates is right. Reports of a potential delay in the program due to technical challenges appear to be groundless, and F-35 really is central to future joint warfighting plans in a way that the more expensive F-22 fighter was not. Gates seems to grasp that any attempt to use the program as a bill-payer for other priorities would undermine the low cost per plane that is essential to its success. Cost escalation would lead allies to drop out of the program and domestic services to pare production, compromising economies of scale. As it stands today, F-35 is a paradigm of sound program management. The fact that Secretary Gates sees that is a pleasant surprise for those of us who feared he didn’t care about next-generation weapons.
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