Next Monday, the senior management of the nation’s military establishment will gather to decide what it has learned from the Quadrennial Defense Review. That congressionally-mandated assessment of strategy and forces has stumbled through a year-long series of stunningly wasteful meetings to produce essentially nothing. The final report will exactly reproduce the biases with which its political overseers began (you know, the terrorists are coming to get us and only networks can save us). But having endured all the stultifying rituals associated with what passes for consensus building under Donald Rumsfeld, policymakers think they have earned the right to kill some programs.
At the top of their hit list is the Air Force version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Deputy Secretary of Defense-designate Gordon England, who once ran the Fort Worth plant that will produce the F-35 but now aspires to run the entire Defense Department, is pushing to kill the conventional-takeoff variant of that triservice aircraft. He wants the Air Force to buy the Navy version of the plane, which was designed to fly off of aircraft carriers. There’s a third, vertical-takeoff version of F-35 being built for the Marine Corps, but that’s not on the table because it’s considered “transformational” (despite the fact that England tried to kill it on his first tour as Navy Secretary).
England’s proposal to cancel the Air Force version of F-35 is emblematic of how farcical the whole QDR process has become. It’s a far-reaching decision that would restructure a program costing a quarter-trillion dollars and involving many key allies. So the department must have assembled a rigorous analytical case for making the change, right? Well, not quite. Actually, there is no case beyond the vague notion of senior policymakers that the services are “buying too many fighters.” Not only would the move save no money through the end of the decade (if ever), but it would enrage several allies who have made commitments to the aircraft while saddling the Air Force with a plane that fails to match its needs. Did I mention that three-quarters of all the planes in the F-35 program-of-record are supposed to be used by the Air Force?
Other than the overwhelming presence of sea-service alumni in QDR deliberations, it’s a little unclear why anyone would want to kill the Air Force version of the plane. It is, after all, the only version likely to be bought in large numbers by other countries. Eliminating it means walking away from global aircraft markets that America has dominated for two generations. The carrier-based version of F-35 is so unappealing to many users that policymakers initially had to force it on Navy aviators, who wanted nothing to do with it. The Air Force will have to modify it to take out the excess structural weight associated with doing carrier landings.
But that’s not really going to happen, because if England succeeds in getting his way on Monday, there are only two long-term outcomes for the Joint Strike Fighter that can plausibly unfold. One is that Congress will reject the proposal and tell the Pentagon to stick with the original plan. The other is that Congress will grudgingly accept the change, in which case the whole F-35 program will gradually melt down the way that Robert McNamara’s F-111 program did. That plane came out of Gordon England’s old Fort Worth factory too, but not for long because it lacked the political support to survive much beyond McNamara’s tenure.
Find Archived Articles: