THE BLOG
12/07/2011 04:51 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2012

The F-35, a $400 Billion Boondoggle

InsideDefense confirmed Tuesday "that there are still 'outstanding risks associated with the Joint Strike Fighter flight training..." It interpreted that confirmation as "a sign of concurrence with the Pentagon's top weapons tester that the F-35 is not yet ready for unmonitored flight or formal training."

Monday, John McCain stood up on the floor of the Senate and said "it's wise to sort of temper production for a while here..." McCain was quoting an interview that AOL Defense had conducted with Vice Admiral David Venlet about the F-35. McCain then went on to say, "When the head of the most expensive, high-profile systems program in U.S. history effectively says, 'Hold it! We need to slow down much we are buying!' We should all pay close attention."

It isn't quite that simple. InsideDefense reports that on October 24th, Venlet "and Lt. Gen. Thomas Owen, the commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center, argued that the JSF program... should begin training at Eglin AFB [Air Force Base] as soon as an event-driven process results in a military flight release." Previously, on October 21st, "Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department's director of operational test and evaluation, wrote a memo to Frank Kendall, DOD's acting acquisition chief" detailing his concerns with "safety shortfalls" and recommended a delay "in the start of training for an estimated ten months."

Velent and Owen wanted it to begin sooner, but DOD's acting acquisition chief "requested a reply from Air Force Secretary, Michael Donley, that it was the service's responsibly to address the issues..." On November 22nd, Donley replied that the service "shares some concerns with Gilmore" InsideDefense, quoting from Donely's memo, said "The Air Force agreed with Dr. Gilmore that there were still outstanding risks with the Joint Strike Fighter training at Eglin AFB" He added "that a military flight release (MFR), which would permit flight operations to begin would not be issued... until these risks have been accepted or mitigated... We have made clear to all involved that there is no pressure to initiate training".

According to InsiderDefense, Gilmore's memo had outlined "a number of airworthiness criteria... that the JSF has yet to meet." Owen and Venlet reported that they had made progress regarding some of those criteria. Nevertheless, Donley, confirmed there are still outstanding risks associated with the Joint Strike Fighter flight training and appeared to overrule objections from Venlet and Owen.

The cost of the Joint Strike Fighter program is already approaching $400 billion. Senator McCain wants Lockheed Martin, the F-35 contractor "to assume an increase share of any cost overruns." AOL Defense reports that "Late Monday afternoon, the Pentagon announced that a contract agreement on LRIP 5 [low rate initial production] had been reached." No details of the sharing arrangement were revealed.

McCain, again quoting AOL Defense, said "that the path we are on is neither affordable nor sustainable... If things do not improve -- quickly -- tax payers and the war fighter will insist that all options will be on the table. And they should be. We can not continue on this path." AOL Defense reminded us that last summer, McCain, who is the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services, "came within a whisker of putting the program on Death Row." That would be throwing $400 billion down the drain, but since Lockheed and the military both admit that the amount of money necessary to correct the risks cannot be accurately estimated, we don't know how much more it will cost or how valuable it would be in fighting the next generation of wars.

It has been more than 10 years since the F-35 contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin, almost half a trillion dollars has been spent on its development. Generals and admirals, civilian scientists and acquisition "experts," cabinet officials and Senators are engaged in the battle for its survival, and it still seems tied up in miles of red tape. Even with all the scurrying about of the last few months, no one is willing to put a delivery date on the F-35.

With the nation in grave economic distress, why are some Congressmen and Senators refusing to cut defense spending? If we hadn't invested in the F-35, our national debt would be almost 3 percent less than it is now. Almost everyone believes that our government wastes a lot of money. The F-35 may yet be the biggest waste in history.