In normal times, the defense secretary’s support for his department’s biggest weapons program would be taken as a given. But these are not normal times. The federal government is borrowing billions of dollars each day, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was put in charge of the Pentagon with an eye to finding big savings. Panetta is well qualified for that role, having chaired the House Budget Committee while serving in Congress, and then run the White House budget office. His more recent job as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency should make him ideally suited to conduct the necessary tradeoffs between military strategy and resources. After all, who in public life today better understands security threats or the federal budget?
So when Secretary Panetta said earlier this week the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is “an investment that we ought to maintain for the future,” that must have come as a big relief to proponents of U.S. air power. And when he said in response to the same question from a reporter that “everyone I’ve talked to” seems “very pleased that it does in fact provide the capabilities that we need,” that must have been well received among the many thousands of engineers and production personnel involved in building the plane. It probably wasn’t as well received in countries like China that are hoping to catch up with U.S. aerial combat capabilities in the years ahead, nor among the budget cutters who view F-35 as a piggy bank that can fund other activities.
As is often the case with big weapons programs, public discussion of the F-35 is awash in misleading information about the costs of building and operating the plane. The simple reality is that F-35 is the only available option for replacing the aging combat aircraft of three domestic military services and a dozen allies that can preserve U.S. air superiority through mid-century. Some critics have called for upgrading existing planes instead, but those planes are rapidly losing their ability to survive in hostile air space as potential adversaries develop their own stealthy fighters and a new generation of agile surface-to-air missiles. The budgetary logic for extending the life of legacy planes is quite flawed, since using the defense department’s own methodology, it would cost nearly four times more to keep existing planes airworthy over the next several decades than it would to operate F-35s.
Apparently the analytic case for keeping all three variants of the F-35 on track has registered with Secretary Panetta as a result of his numerous conversations with warfighters. His proposed deputy, current Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter, was right to express concern about rising program costs when he appeared before congressional authorizers recently, but the more Panetta learns about the program the more it will become clear that cost trends are driven in large part by the defense department’s own actions. The F-35 can still be had by U.S. and allied warfighters alike at a reasonable price if the Pentagon will settle on a stable program schedule that includes economical production rates. If it can’t do that, then the future of U.S. air power is very much in doubt.
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