The F-35 Lightning, A Modern Day Albatross

The American economy is one of the most complex machines in the world. The United States federal budget is one of the most complex items for the government. Likewise, the US military machine is extremely complex and ties the economy and the budget together. Obviously the military is not the only part of the budget, but it is the biggest part. The 2015 discretionary spending for the federal government was $1.11 trillion. Of that, the military consumed 54%, or $598.5 billion (1) Discretionary spending is set each year by Congress through an appropriations process. To keep it simple, let’s just say the appropriation of funds is a massive bidding process for various government agencies and is based upon the previous years spending levels.

Needless to say, over a half trillion dollars is a lot of money. The military operates under a use or or lose it policy. (At least it used to). That means if the requested money for a fiscal year is not completely used, then the following year, a unit in question will only be budgeted for the amount of money they spent. This encourages individual units to spend any extra money they have on items they have not needed throughout the year, and may not need in the future.

F-35 v F-16 F-35 v F-16

I am a huge supporter of the military and national defense. It is essential to the security and freedom of the nation. However, I am not a supporter of reckless spending just for the sake of the newest and shiniest thing that may or may not be necessary or needed. The expenses associated with national defense are often over the top. As with any bureaucracy, there is wasted and often times, misappropriated funding. The waste within the Department of Defense goes deep in my opinion. Over the past 20 years, there have been numerous weapon systems and programs that have come at huge expenses to taxpayers. Some of these include the non-line of sight canon (NLOS), air based missile defense lasers, the main battle rifle competition, new sidearm competition, and my favorite project the F-35 Lighting II. It may be better known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). I plan to focus mostly on the astronomical expenses associated with the JSF.

Lockheed Martin won the contract to develop the F-35 in October 2001. The goal of the JSF program was to create a weapons platform that was common across all branches of the military with 80% compatible parts. In theory, this would keep costs down. In addition, the Air Force would replace the F-15, F-16 and A-10 with the F-35. The Navy would replace the F/A-18 (while keeping the F-18 Super Hornet) and the Marines would replace their F/A-18s and the AV-8B Harrier. Again, in theory, this is a great idea. (2) A joint aircraft has never been developed before. The closest the services have come in the past is the F-4 Phantom II of the 1960s that was designed by the Navy for carrier operations but ultimately was adopted by the Air Force and Marines as a multi-role fighter. I theorize the reason a joint fighter has never been developed is due to the different needs of the services. The Navy and Marines need an aircraft that can operate off of an aircraft carrier or from short, barely serviceable runways. The Air Force generally has access to longer runways and therefore is not tied to the same requirements.

F-4 Phantom IIF-4 Phantom II with US Air Force markings

F-15, F-16, F-18 F-15, F-16, F/A-18

The 2001 contract awarded Lockheed Martin $200 billion to build the aircraft. According to CNN, the price tag is now up to $400 billion for the delivery of almost 2,000 aircraft. In 2006, the plane flew for the first time. Then in March of 2014, Luke Air Force Base received its first F-35. (3) That’s 13 years after the first contract was initially awarded and 8 years after the first flight. The F-35 had not even dropped any bombs in testing. That did not occur until 2016. To date, the F-35 has not flown in combat, instead it has been constantly grounded for numerous design and software problems. However, it did fly in simulated combat against an F-16 in the summer of 2015. The results were dismal for the new fangled fighter against the aging backbone of the US Air Force. (4) As recently as April 2016, the plane had another software problem that could lead to another $20-100 billion to repair, pushing the deployment in the Navy back to 2018. (5)

Suffice to say, the F-35 has become a bloated undertaking that is well over budget, as well as underwhelming in what has been produced so far. It is not combat ready, it does not have a working cannon, and it is virtually unknown when it will be ready. I think at this point, fiscal conservatives should take a look at the entire project and determine if it is a go or no-go. In my tiny portion of the world, I would say end this program now. Not a year down the road, not five years, but now.

I think America is doomed to continuing with this expensive project. Many would argue too much money has been spent at this point to cancel the project. The real problem with why the project has not been cancelled is not the amount of money that has been spent. It is jobs and jobs that could be lost due to a massive cut in the defense industry.

As I said earlier, the military eats up over 50% of the federal discretionary spending. That is a lot of money. That also represents a lot of jobs that are dedicated to the F-35. Construction of parts of the aircraft takes place in 45 states. 40,000 people in Texas alone make contributions to the project (6) Magnify that across the United States and it is obvious the plane has become part of the military industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation to avoid. Literally thousands of jobs contribute toward construction of the F-35 and its numerous components.

Apparently, continuing to move forward is the plan. In 2010, the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates fired the Pentagon manager of the program and overhauled the acquisition process in the hopes of getting the program back on track and within budget. (7) While this is all well and good, there is a part of the American population that says enough rampant spending. Congress is not listening.

Companies such as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, United Technologies, and BAE contributed to the campaigns of leaders sitting on the House Armed Services committee, the House Appropriations Committee, and the Senate Appropriations Committee. Oddly enough, those same companies make parts for the F-35. Follow the trail of money. (8) Congressional leaders will not cancel the project because the contractors involved will stop their campaign contributions. Perhaps there is a major reasons Americans continue to scream for campaign finance reform?

Congressional leaders also do not appear to want to talk to their constituents about the spending or the program. I had a chance several months ago to pull Representative Pete Sessions (R- TX) aside and talk at a function we were both attending. After talking to him about guns and education, I asked him if we could talk about the F-35. He fingered his F-35 lapel pin and smiled. So I told him there are concerns among taxpayers and how the plane is supposed to replace the A-10 in the close air support role. He tried to tell me he was friends with former Dallas Cowboys Tight End Chad Hennings who had flown the A-10, trying to explain to me how there is support for the plane among veterans. Sessions was not very clear about which plane and which veterans. Of the veterans I’ve talked to, all of them, with no exceptions, prefer having the A-10 above all other aircraft overhead for close air support. His response had nothing to do with my question but it was obvious he was trying to deflect my questions. I then began to ask if it was possible to find a better use of money than an all purpose fighter that does not even work. I told him $400 billion is a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere. At that point, Sessions appeared to be uncomfortable and gave me his phone number, telling me it was his personal cell phone, and then dismissed himself. It was evident to me he was uncomfortable with the conversation and even more so knowing he was dealing with someone that was educated on the subject and knew what they were talking about. I also assume Congressmen do not want to be questioned on where money is going by the people who’s cash they are spending.

A-10 Thunderbolt II, aka WarthogA-10

I hate to push the idea of a conspiracy. I do not think this is one. Instead, I believe the trail of money and threat to Congressional reelections has led down the path cautioned against by Eisenhower. To be simple, if the program is cancelled, thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. Cancelling the F-35 would have a massive effect on small town economies were the previously mentioned contractors are located. This wave of unemployment would probably be felt across the US economy. Losing this program and its attached jobs, with nothing to replace it, will cost Congressmen when it comes time for reelection. They need the campaign money from the contractors. Contractors need programs and jobs; Congressmen need money for elections. Congress will continue to fight for the aircraft.

Overall, the F-35 project is locked in a quagmire of military wants, lack of affective Congressional oversight, jobs, and special interests. Imagine if private businesses operated in this manner? They would never be profitable and would eventually go bankrupt. Continuing to throw money at a problem is not the solution. It will only create more layers to be peeled back and ultimately more corruption and wasted money. The F-35 was initially proposed to be a one size fits all solution to numerous potential conflicts facing the military in the 21st century. I learned growing up that a universal fit only means it does not fit anything well.

Maybe it is time to scrap the program and design a new aircraft with a stricter set of parameters. The F-35 in its current state is a jack of all trades, master of nothing. It is a black hole of desires and money that have little to show after 15 years of development.

I have tried to offer a piece of the F-35 picture. There is an exhaustive list of other problems with this aircraft that I could, and very possibly may, write about down the road. I am not a fan of this program, and have not been from the start. It has been plagued by problems from day one, ranging from orders being placed before research was even completed and tested, helmet malfunctions, failed ejection seats, lack of stealth capability, a small weapons payload, a failed cannon, and lack of acceptable or functioning coding for onboard software. Mixed in with these issues has been a lack of Congressional oversight coupled with an expanding budget and generals who claim they absolutely “need” this fighter while they plead with retired generals in high civilian positions who influence the program.
All of these issues have formed a twisted web of influence and wasted money and crammed down a rabbit hole from which there may be no return. Like many have claimed with our government, it is too big to fail. The F-35 may be too big to fail and the only choice will be to continue forward.

F-35 integrated helmetF-35 integrated helmet

I offer another idea; it is not too big to fail. It is too big to succeed. It is time to shut down the program and start over. Leadership is needed that will acknowledge the desires of the people and their pockets and maintain a balance with contractors and generals who “need” a new toy. It is time to cut our losses, learn from the mistakes, and apply the new technology to a new aircraft.


1 “Military Spending in the United States.” National Priorities Project. Accessed April 29, 2016.

2 “Military.” F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Accessed April 29, 2016.

3 “First of 144 F-35A Lightning II Stealth Jets Arrives at Luke AFB.” First of 144 F-35A Lightning II Stealth Jets Arrives at Luke AFB. Accessed April 29, 2016.

4 Person, and Tyler Rogoway. “The F-35 Can’t Beat The Plane It’s Replacing In A Dogfight: Report.” Foxtrot Alpha. 2015. Accessed April 29, 2016.

5 Zolfagharifard, Ellie. “Controversial $400bn F-35 Fighter Jet Now Has Computer ‘brain’ Problem Which Could See Entire Fleet Grounded.” Mail Online. 2016. Accessed April 29, 2016. claims-report.html.

6 “Pentagon’s ‘Too Big to Fail’ F-35 Gets Another $10.6 Billion.” The Fiscal Times. Accessed April 29, 2016.

7 “Pentagon’s ‘Too Big to Fail’ F-35 Gets Another $10.6 Billion.” The Fiscal Times. Accessed April 29, 2016.

8 “The F-35: Is It worth the Cost?” CNN. Accessed April 29, 2016.

For Reading and research

“Air Force F-35 Lightning Fighter Jets Drop First Bombs.” CNN. Accessed April 29, 2016.

Published by

Chris McMillan

I consider to be myself somewhat of a pretty cool nerd. I have a BBS in History from Hardin-Simmons University and I graduated with honors with an MA in Military History with a concentration on War Since 1945 from the American Military University. Needless to say I love history. When I'm not studying history I'm also keeping track of MLB and my Texas Rangers. I'm also an avid fan of fitness and putting rounds downrange when the time presents itself. I enjoy shooting so much I got Uncle Sam to pay me to do it for a bit. However, the best part of my life is being the husband to a wonderful wife and mother and the daddy to a bouncy, energetic little girl.

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