The Pentagon’s decision to kill the F-22 fighter was barely public before proponents of other priorities began calling for cuts in the nation’s only other stealth fighter program, the F-35 Lightning II (also known as Joint Strike Fighter). Washington seems to be drifting into a low-threat / high-deficit era where there is no agreed framework for formulating future military priorities. The combination of receding terrorist threats and trillion-dollar annual budget shortfalls will put huge fiscal pressure on defense spending, with weapons programs likely to take the brunt of reductions.
In such an environment, it is likely that F-35 — the biggest future weapons program — will be continuously eyed as a bill-payer for other needs. We have been down this road before with programs like F-22, and we knows where it leads: each cut drives up the unit cost of the weapons system, setting the stage for further cuts in subsequent years. That cannot be allowed to happen to F-35, because the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are all counting on the program to preserve their tactical aircraft capabilities through mid-century. So are nine allies such as Israel, Italy and the United Kingdom, a number that will doubtless grow if the program is kept on schedule.
The appeal of the F-35 program resides in its attempt to build a stealthy strike aircraft in three variants with many shared parts, which permits economies of scale across the entire life-cycle of the plane — from development to production to operational maintenance. With so many services buying it at home and abroad, interoperability among diverse forces would be greatly enhanced, and the U.S. aerospace industry would continue to be the global leader in fighter production (with huge benefits to our trade balance). But the success of the F-35 business plan depends on keeping the cost of each plane far below what an F-22 would cost, and every time there is a development delay or a cut in the planned rate of production, that goal becomes harder to achieve. So the fate of the F-35 program over the next four years will be a good indicator of whether the Obama Administration understands the demands of future military preparedness — not to mention global partnering and a healthy trade balance.
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