Stop rewarding the failure of the F-35

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Every parent understands that if they reward good behavior, their children are more likely to behave well. But if bad behavior goes unpunished and sometimes even rewarded, then the children will not be deterred from misbehaving. It is a simple concept.

This lesson, however, seems to be something that most lawmakers in Congress and policymakers at the Pentagon cannot understand. No matter how many instances where contractor Lockheed Martin has failed in providing the quality product that it is being paid for, the American government keeps rewarding it by throwing more money its way. At this point, it is very much good money being paid after poor results.

For example, the trade publication Defense News reports: “Repeated failures in the propulsion train on the Freedom-class littoral combat ships Little Rock and Detroit have raised the specter of a class-wide design flaw that could trigger an expensive reworking of a crucial component on 17 of the Navy’s small surface combatants.” 

Ironically, Lockheed may end up making money off this mistake. “In partnership with the U.S. Navy, Lockheed Martin is aggressively pursuing a resolution to the gear issue the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship is currently experiencing,” a statement from the contractor reads. If the Navy decides to have all these ships retrofitted, the contractor could get paid for fixing its mistake. Instead, shouldn’t Lockheed Martin have to bear the financial burden of fixing the ships at no additional cost? Otherwise, the government is simply rewarding a contractor for poor work.

At the same time, the Pentagon is using a different approach with Boeing’s KC-46 tanker program. According to Defense News, they are reducing the amount of money due on delivery to Boeing as a means to punish for the delays and technical glitches that had to occur. 

This is not the only Lockheed program that is failing to deliver, yet not being punished for late delivery and design flaws.

Just this year, the Pentagon’s own testing office reported that Lockheed’s F-35 “remains marred by 871 software and hardware deficiencies that could undercut readiness, missions or maintenance.” The Pentagon admits that many of the plane’s problems were known of when it was still in the development and demonstration phase. Yet, instead of punishing Lockheed by cancelling the program, it went ahead and bought the plane anyway.

Former acting Defense Secretary, Chris Miller, told reporters the F-35 was a “case study” in procurement failures, but he wasn’t in office long enough to solve that problem. In part, that is because the problem actually goes back a generation.

The F-35 was designed in the 1990s with the intention of replacing several existing aircraft. It was supposed to bomb across long distances, land on ships at sea, and provide close-air support for troops. Instead, it has been an expensive disaster, over-engineered for any of the tasks at hand. Its high-tech systems have not worked well, and the military is keeping older planes, such as the F-16, in service because they can do the job that the F-35 cannot.

This history should illuminate the future. As Miller also noted, the military is now looking at building a next-generation aircraft to replace the F-35. The Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program will provide diversity in the Air Force’s fighter jet production to combat emerging threats. It makes sense, especially since our enemies have figured out how to counter the supposed dominance of the F-35. For instance, China has developed the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ which uses similar technology to the F-35, necessitating the U.S. moving on to the next generation fighter jet to stay one step ahead. 

NGAD works in a different way. Instead of one plane that is supposed to be able to do everything for 20 or 30 years, the military would be developing new planes every few years. This would provide flexibility; the design could change as military needs change. No one can predict what type of war the U.S. may be fighting in 20 years. Therefore, we cannot effectively design a plane for that war at this time.

The contracting process should also be updated. Instead of putting all our chips on one contractor, several could split up the work. That would provide necessary competition and could lessen the risk of big failures, such as the F-35.

Thankfully, one lawmaker has recognized this issue and thrown in the towel on the F-35.  House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) was quoted in Inside Defense on March. 5, 2021, that it is time to “cut our losses” on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The report went on to say, “the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history could be nearing a major inflection point.” Smith went on to say, “I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole.” Even left leaning Members of Congress recognize that wasting hundreds of billions of taxpayer cash on continuing this program is fiscally irresponsible. 

It is up to the lawmakers. They need to stop rewarding failure, and instead work toward a more cost-effective military for our future.

Kent Alexander is a political consultant with years of experience in government affairs, state and federal public policy. He served as an advisor to Congressman Cresent Hardy (R-NV) and has worked in policy areas including transportation, business development, military affairs, veteran affairs and public lands.


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