The development of the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 has been delayed substantially due to skyrocketing research spending and contracting defense budget. Also, since this is a multinational project, it must meet diversified demands of international partners. Will F-35 be deployed at the right time? Walter Pincus, Reporter of the Washington Post, discusses some difficulties to advance the F-35 project (“F-35 production a troubling example of Pentagon spending”; Washington Post, December 27, 2011). Let me review his recent article.
At this stage, only 20% of the test of this multi role fighter has been completed. The most advanced stealth technologies are used for this plane, but it is the development of software to control the fighter that poses the most burdensome challenge to the project team. That makes the research cost considerably higher than initially expected. As a result, Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lowered production of F-35 fighters. On December 15, Senator John McCain criticized the Department of Defense because it promoted the F-35 project to build cost-effective fifth-generation fighter without understanding technological difficulties. McCain calls such a poorly coordinated plan “a recipe for disaster”.
Along with unexpected rise of development cost, defense spending cut impose another constraint on the Joint Strike Fighter project. Initially, 3,000 F-35 fighters were planned to replace fighter bombers of three services of US armed forces and military forces of the allies. Instead of satisfying such diversified necessities of each service and country, Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, recommends to cut the total number of the Joint Strike Fighter and focus on the Air Force version of F-35A, while canceling the Marine Corps' V/STOL version of F-35B and the Navy version of F-35C. So does the Simpson-Bowels deficit reduction commission. O’Hanlon suggests that US forces order unmanned aircraft to replace cancelled or reduced F-35 fighters.
The problem is, whether the United States can sustain superiority in air power, in view of rapid military build up of China, and still formidable air force of Russia. Both of them are currently developing stealth fighters, and they will export those fighters to anti-Western autocracies. Walter Pincus is too optimistic to dismiss these threats simply because the Soviet Union had collapsed long before. In addition, as it is a multinational project, suggested cancels will coerce allies to change their defense plans. Italy and Spain will lose their carrier planes to replace current Harriers, if the V/STOL version is cancelled. Britain, the second largest partner in this project, will have to redesign its CVF (future aircraft carrier) plan, if F-35C is not available. Though Japan has decided to choose F-35 for its next generation fighter, it is still necessary to watch Britain’s Queen Elizabeth class carrier plan, because unbearable delay may lead British policymakers to reconsider current idea. Present mess with F-35 can jeopardize national defense of America’s top allies in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Certainly, Pentagon made an immature plan, which pushes the price of new stealth fighter unexpectedly upward. But I would question whether the Obama administration is firmly committed to the defense of the United States and the allies. It is not the shift to Asia that serves US interests but maintaining sufficient strength to defend the world order. It is right to pay more attention to China, but its expansionism is not just in East Asia but advances westward as well. China craves for more influences in Central Asia and the Middle East. The shift to Asia simply creates a huge power vacuum in the region where Iran acts belligerently and Arab nations face unprecedented political transitions. America needs to be well equipped to manage diversified challenges. It is an issue of America’s mainstay fighter, and Republican presidential candidates must talk more about this vital policy agenda to challenge President Barack Obama in the forthcoming election.