I must confess that one of my not-so guilty pleasures is to read The Economist from cover to cover as soon as it comes in the mail. I learn a great deal from its articles on foreign policy, economics, technology and even British politics. I even have an app for The Economist on my smart phone.
So it was a disappointment when I read two articles (“The Joint Strike Fighter: Coming Up Short,” July 16 and “The Last Manned Fighter,” July 14) regarding the F-35 program, a subject with which I am very familiar and found it rife with errors of fact, misstatements and downright silliness.
For example, the F-35 is planned to enter into service with the Marine Corps in 2012, not 2016 as one article stated. By 2016 the F-35 program will have delivered over 200 aircraft to all three U.S. services and seven other nations. In addition, two of three F-35 variants will be capable of carrying four air-to-air missiles internally, not two as an article reported, and there are plans to enable them to accommodate six missiles. Both articles criticized the F-35 for being short-ranged. Compared to what, a B-2 bomber? The F-35 has a radius of more than 600 miles, which is equivalent to or greater than other fighter aircraft operating today including the F/A-18 that the Navy would have to acquire were it not to buy the F-35C.
Both articles raised the problem of aircraft carrier vulnerability to Chinese anti-access and area denial systems. The problem they mention of long-range missiles against aircraft carriers is applicable to all fighter aircraft. More to the point, the Navy has been dealing with missile and air threats to its aircraft carriers for decades. Countering these threats is based on a combination of capabilities, including long-range aircraft, air-to-air refueling, stand-off weapons, mobility, deception, communications security and robust defenses including the Aegis air and missile defense system with the Standard Missile family.
The rather casual recommendation to cancel the short takeoff/vertical landing variant of the F-35 reflects a lack of understanding both of the capabilities the F-35B brings to the sea services and the current state of the program. The F-35B will provide greater firepower, responsiveness and range as compared to its predecessor, the AV-8 Harrier. It will also provide electronic warfare, advanced ISR and command and control functions that are available neither on the Harrier nor on any other currently deployed U.S. or European fighter. As has been demonstrated in operations over Libya, a Harrier/F-35B like capability provides unique benefits to NATO forces and can obviate the need to deploy through-deck aircraft carriers. Although the F-35B has had technical and testing issues the former have been resolved and testing is now proceeding ahead rapidly.
If there was one thing which I thought I could always count on from The Economist it was precise quantitative analysis. Yet, the paper repeated the outrageous story regarding the alleged $1 trillion cost of supporting the F-35 fleets through the year 2065. As my colleague Loren Thompson has pointed out, using this kind of math, the cost of military bands will be an astonishing $50 billion over the same time period. As the writers and editors should know, given that they work for a paper with the title of The Economist, the differences between using constant dollars and then-year dollars can be profound. Using the more appropriate measure, which is constant 2011 dollars, the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program is 60 percent less than a hypothetical number in 2065. Moreover, using the same then-year dollar estimating technique as applied to the F-35 program the costs of sustaining the legacy fleets of F-16s and F/A-18s would be around $4 trillion (in those 2065 dollars). Thus, based on The Economist’sflawed calculations, the F-35 program will save $3 trillion (in the same 2065 dollars).
In addition, The Economist seems to have unique knowledge about the impending arrival on the scene of new unmanned aerial vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. Both articles suggest that it may not be worth spending scarce resources on the F-35 when its jobs can be performed by unmanned aerial vehicles. Unfortunately, there were no facts to back up this assertion. In reality, we are decades away from having a stealthy unmanned system that can carry large payloads into hostile airspace, defend itself while striking multiple targets with accuracy, and return to an airbase or aircraft carrier. The next generation bomber, which is intended to be optionally manned, will not even be in development for another decade. In addition, the ability to command and control such a vehicle in a hostile electronic and cyberwar environment is not assured.
Similar silliness was evident in the paper’s proposal to rely on hypersonic cruise missiles. We have yet to demonstrate even sustained flight of a hypersonic vehicle. There is no answer to the problems of range, payload, precision delivery, damage assessment or collateral affects.
While it may be tempting to propose waiting for the next-generation air vehicle or weapon, at some point the force structure needs to be rebuilt. During the 1980s the U.S. and its allies purchased fighter aircraft in bulk, and these are rapidly wearing out. Either we replace aging fighter fleets soon or risk a significant loss of capability.
The F-35 is the world’s most advanced fighter jet. The U.S., the United Kingdom, and eight other nations are committed to operating the F-35 due to its tremendous capability enhancements, its ability to deter potential adversaries and the absolute necessity of replacing aging fleets of 1980s vintage aircraft. In the United Kingdom, the recently completed security review described the Joint Strike Fighter as “the world’s most advanced multi-role combat jet.” As both the United States and its allies reduce the size and cost of their military establishments, the F-35 program allows the replacement of tactical aircraft on a less than one-for-one basis while improving their overall military capability.
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