InsideDefense.com has issued an update of the F-35 story referenced in my blog posting earlier today, dismissing my criticism as “flat wrong.” In an April 9 posting on its web-site, it tells readers “Defense consultant and Lexington Institute head Loren Thompson has attacked a story we wrote this week on the Joint Strike Fighter, alleging ethical lapses and claiming that the math used in the story is ‘fuzzy,’ among other wild accusations.” The posting then offers a link to the updated story in which a Pentagon spokesperson confirms that the F-35 program cost estimate in the original story was similar to what the department has actually found.
I am not going to follow the typical blogging practice of refusing to admit error in responding — reporter Jason Sherman may well have captured the essence of what the Pentagon cost estimators reported — but I don’t think a couple of nebulous comments from a mid-level spokesperson really refutes the points I raised. As chance would have it, I taught defense journalism at Georgetown University for the better part of a decade and published a well-received book on the same subject (Defense Beat, Macmillan, 1991), so I have a pretty good idea of when I’m seeing mediocre reporting. I didn’t need the inputs from journalists I have received both before and after my blog posting appeared to know Sherman’s story was unbalanced and misleading.
Let’s look at the four basic points I made, and see how wrong I really was:
1. Reporters didn’t chase the original story because a Pentagon spokesperson dismissed it as being based on “shaky math.” Still true — it wasn’t me that used the phrase “fuzzy math,” it was a Pentagon official.
2. Nothing in the program’s recent history would explain the continuous increase in program and unit costs reported by InsideDefense.com. Also true — Sherman fails to explain that all he is reporting is a shift in the assumptions used to make cost estimates, rather than some problem in program performance.
3. The estimates Sherman reports are based on numerous unprovable assumptions and he failed to explain how he extrapolated cost outcomes. This too is true, and the fact that the reporter did not mention how unreliable assumptions about future program performance, production rates and inflation trends are reinforces my assessment that the story is unbalanced.
4. Sherman is relying on a handful of sources who are prosecuting an agenda, and as a result he has produced a misleading story. Just read the headline on the original story — “Exclusive: DoD Warns Congress JSF Costs Could Skyrocket to $388 Billion By Summer” — and ask yourself whether it sounds like an objective, balanced account is likely to follow.
The bottom line on the F-35 program is that the cost of producing each plane in today’s dollars will be around $60 million, which is similar to what an F-16 or F/A-18 costs. You can add the cost of development to that if you wish, but most of the R&D money has already been spent so it isn’t likely to influence the buying behavior of prospective users. The only way the program cost ever reaches $388 billion is if we have massive inflation during the 30 years the F-35 is being built — which is certainly possible, but unknowable and unprovable today. I’m sure that William Randolph Hearst would have approved of the way InsideDefense.com presented their story, but it shouldn’t count on getting that Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism anytime soon.
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