Opposition Builds to the F-35 Program’s Runaway Costs

The reliability and service life of the F-35 were greatly exaggerated in earlier reports

Image Credits: VINCENT JANNINK/ANP/AFP via Getty Images.

Earlier this month, House Armed Services Committee chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) said it’s time to “cut our losses” on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and added, “I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole.”

Smith has no problem with spending money on air power as an essential component of military defense. But when it comes to the extremely expensive F-35 program, he asks “What does the F-35 give us and is there a way to cut our losses? … For what we have spent in terms of what we’ve gotten back? It’s just painful. It just hurts.”

Smith, who will sherpa the defense authorization bill, wants to make changes in the program. “[We] can’t get rid of the program. I do understand that. What I’m going to try to do is figure out how we can get a mix of fighter attack aircraft that’s the most cost-effective. Bottom line. And I’m telling you right now a big part of that is finding something that doesn’t make us have to rely on the F-35 for the next 35 years.”

The program has technical issues that come close to making it nonviable. In my own past research, I found the aircraft has major issues with reliability and that puts the service life of the airplane considerably below first reports. For example, the US Marines bought the F-35B variant. It was advertised to have an eight thousand–hour service life. Realistically it now appears that it will be closer to twenty-one hundred. Maintenance? The goal of hitting 80 percent of field metrics standards is not being met. Known cyber issues with the plane remain unresolved. There are myriad other problems both large and small with the F-35.

In American Greatness, defense analyst Mytheos Holt commented,

[T]he F-35 also has a software component. It’s called the ALIS logistical system, an entire software infrastructure that is supposed to make the plane easier to fly and maintain. In reality, according to former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, ALIS is a buggy mess, a system “so frustrating to use, maintainers said they were wasting 10–15 hours a week fighting with it.” It has also been shown to be extremely vulnerable to hackers when it does work.

In other words, it’s the defense industry’s equivalent of Windows 10, if it was programmed in the Ninth Circle of Hell. Lockheed Martin claims that even though the Defense Department paid for ALIS, it still has to license the technology from the company. Given that ALIS in its current state is glorified malware, this might not seem like a big deal. But it is. Because one of the things Lockheed Martin has been using its ownership of ALIS to do is prevent the U.S. government from fixing the software on its own. In other words, the Pentagon can’t use its own planes unless Lockheed feels like fixing the problem with the software.

This is bad enough, but it gets worse when you imagine that ALIS actually worked as advertised. In that situation, Lockheed arguably could refuse to license the F-35s to anyone they like, for any reason.

Yes, the planes American taxpayers spent $1 trillion to build might not even be ours, thanks to a quirk of intellectual property law.

It gets even worse. Apparently, even when US government documents get uploaded into ALIS, they come back with Lockheed Martin’s proprietary markings. In other words, Lockheed is trying to assert ownership not just over ALIS, but also over the data that is fed into it.

One does not have to be a libertarian purist to have issues with such a program. Competent analysts know that the military has traditionally been slow to embrace new technology, despite having the largest research and development budget on the planet. Especially when it comes to communications, the armed services can lag far behind the private sector. In the 1980s, during my army service, the military had progressed from walkie-talkies and bulkier longer-range communications systems like the PRC-77 to rudimentary software. In the artillery, the TacFire system was used for targeting and, given the mission, communication of data.

Over the decades military progress shadowed private sector initiative, though usually a step or two behind. As, over the past several years, the armed forces have used Zoom for communications, the market has advanced beyond that standard to more sophisticated software. An example of that improvement is Kumospace, a state-of-the-art comms tool. Comparable to its peers like Zoom, but significantly more cutting edge, Kumospace leads the field in video chat, group chat, virtual interview, and remote work functions. As a military veteran I can tell you: those aspects of military communications can not only enhance capabilities to carry out peacetime operations, but also could spell the difference between life and death in a wartime environment.



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