Jason Sherman of InsideDefense.com reports this week that a Pentagon analysis of trends in the industrial base raises doubts about the military’s ability to preserve its five-year lead in fighter technology. He quotes a passage from the analysis with worrisome implications for America’s global air dominance: “The longer the delay in launching a new tactical aircraft program, the longer it will take to regain lost capabilities, the more costly it will be to do so, the thinner the margin of technological superiority, the more internationalized the industrial and technological base, and the more permanent the international technological division of labor.”
Wow, that’s scary stuff. If the joint force can’t maintain its current edge over other countries in aircraft that secure the skies, every other facet of U.S. warfighting could be impaired. Is it just me, though, or is there something ironic about this warning coming out of the same policymakers who (1) killed the top-of-the-line F-22 fighter at half of the Air Force’s stated requirement, (2) slowed development of the tri-service F-35 fighter by several years, and (3) seem to view current tactical-aircraft modernization programs like a piggybank for other priorities? I mean, if our edge in fighter technology has really shrunk to a mere five years, then shouldn’t the Obama Administration be looking for ways of speeding up the F-35 program rather than slowing it down?
The F-35 is the closest thing that the Air Force and sea services have to a cutting-edge fighter program at the present time, and when President Obama took office the plan was to have 1,600 of the planes delivered by 2017. Now, after four years of Obama’s technocrats climbing all over the program, that number has shrunk to less than 400. Is this any way to maintain America’s edge in fighter technology? Barely a month passes that the Pentagon doesn’t issue some goofy new pronouncement undermining political support for the program, like its fanciful claim that the cost of keeping the plane in service will eventually top a trillion dollars.
The truth of the matter is that the F-35 program is in good shape compared with past aircraft development programs. The only reason the incoming joint program manager thinks relations are unusually tense between his office and contractors is because he doesn’t remember what it was like at similar stages in the development of the F-15, the C-5, the C-17, and the F-22. What’s really different today is the way senior policymakers have micro-managed the department’s biggest weapon program to a point where America’s operational edge in fighter technology will be at risk even if the contractors do everything right. If staying ahead is such a big concern, they should have scaled back the testing and worked around the glitches, rather than using them as an excuse for delays.
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