Over the last several years, the Obama Administration has repeatedly delayed and restructured the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, arguing that more time was needed for testing before the program could enter high-rate production. One consequence of the delays has been to raise the cost of each plane, which potentially will impair the capacity of foreign partners to purchase it. The administration says the inefficiencies associated with depressing production rates can be made up later, and it doesn’t want to ramp up until it can be certain there will be no need to go back and correct problems that might be found in early production planes.
That argument is a little misleading, because the reduced production rate persists after testing is scheduled to conclude, suggesting part of the motivation for delays is just to save money. But that’s not the big problem with waiting to get F-35 into the force. The main problem was on display this week in congressional hearings, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey warned lawmakers about how capable Syrian air defense are. According to Dempsey, Syria’s surface-to-air missiles and surveillance radars are denser and more advanced than those that Libya possessed, meaning any campaign to bomb the brutal dictatorship of President Assad would be a tougher operation than efforts launched last year in support of Libyan rebels.
Syria’s air defenses wouldn’t matter much if the U.S. military had a large force of stealthy tactical aircraft, because radars wouldn’t be able to track them and missiles wouldn’t be able to target them. But there are only a handful of such planes in the force today, and at the rate F-35 is progressing that will remain the case for some time to come. All three military services destined to operate the F-35 have delayed the plane’s operational debut in response to program restructures, and with the slow ramp-up in production rates, it will be two decades before the stealthy strike aircraft are fully fielded. That’s a long time to wait in a world that periodically confronts policymakers with unexpected threats.
So the real danger with delaying high-rate production of F-35 isn’t that the price of each plane will go up, but that the nation might find itself unprepared to deal with a future adversary. The problem wouldn’t be so bad if the administration hadn’t terminated the only other stealthy tactical aircraft the U.S. had in production, the F-22 fighter, but now the F-35 is the only game in town in terms of future production. It also is better configured for the kind of ground attacks that proponents of bombing Syria favor than the F-22, which was conceived mainly to assure dominance of hostile air space. That’s why F-35 is called a “strike” fighter — because it was designed to perform both air dominance and surface attack missions. But it can’t do those things if it isn’t fielded, and right now the Pentagon is exhibiting no sense of urgency about getting the plane into the force.
The leisurely pace of administration plans for fielding F-35 is emblematic of the recently unveiled Asia-Pacific posture, which calls upon the nation to make the sacrifices necessary to do what it wanted to do anyway (get out of Afghanistan). The new posture abolishes the traditional two-war sizing construct for conventional forces, eliminates the capacity to conduct protracted counter-insurgency operations, and suggests further reductions in the strategic nuclear force. Development of a new ballistic-missile submarine to serve as the backbone of the future nuclear deterrent is delayed two years, which like the delays in F-35 reflects little concern about future threats. Maybe it will all work out differently than when the Bush Administration made the same kind of optimistic assumptions on the eve of the 9-11 attacks. But there’s a saying in the Pentagon that “the enemy gets a vote” in the development of future strategy, and right now that reality seems to be missing from F-35 plans.
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