The warplanes took off vertically, dipping and diving as they intercepted enemy aircraft, suppressed enemy fire and supported troops on the ground. Then they landed on the deck of an amphibious assault ship, in the same way they took off: vertically.
[Recommended: Air Force Offering Drone Pilots Sizable Bonuses]
For 10 days in May off the coast of Virginia, a half dozen F-35 fighter jets tested their capabilities under what military officials called real world combat conditions. The Pentagon was trying to see if the Marine Corps’ version of the next-generation fighter plane—its most expensive weapons project ever—was ready for battle. In July, after analyzing the test results, Marine Commandant General Joseph Dunsford triumphantly declared that it was.
That came as a surprise to critics and was seen as a victory for the military brass. For years, the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, has been much maligned. Industry wags had dubbed it “the plane that ate the Pentagon.” A relentless series of technical glitches had pushed the warplane’s development years behind schedule, and its price tag ballooned to a staggering $400 billion—nearly twice its original cost.
Now even Dunsford’s piece of good news is in doubt. A scathing memo written by J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon official who oversees operational testing and evaluations of new weapons systems, dismissed Dunsford’s declaration, saying the conditions of the test hardly simulated real-world combat. The planes, for example, carried no missiles or bombs during the evaluation and landed on a deck that had been cleared of other aircraft. As a result, Gilmore wrote, the test “did not—and could not demonstrate” that the war plane “is operationally effective or suitable for use in any type of limited combat operation or that it is ready for real-world operational deployments.”
Critics of the F-35 program say Dunsford—who was recently confirmed as chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff—was simply trying to build public support for the troubled aircraft and maintain the flow of cash from Congress “... [T]he Marine Corps were doggedly determined to reap the public relations benefits of meeting their artificial [initial operational test] deadline—even if in name only —no matter what,” write defense experts Dan Grazier and Mandy Smithberger in a September 14 report on the F-35 by the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, that included Gilmore’s memo.
The Pentagon began developing the F-35 program in 2001 as replacement for the U.S. military’s F-15 fighters, F-16 and F-18 bombers and reconnaissance aircraft and A-10 close air support warplanes. On average, all are 27 years old. Pentagon officials and Lockheed Martin, the principal contractor, say the F-35 will combine the most advanced stealth coating composites, top-of-the-line radar-jamming capabilities, supersonic speed, hairpin agility and state-of-the-art sensor fusion technology to create the most versatile and lethal warplane of all time. The F-35 will also come in three models—a conventional takeoff and landing version for the Air Force, the carrier-based catapult-assisted take-off version for the Navy and the vertical take-off and landing variety for the Marine Corps.
But throughout its development, the F-35 has been plagued by seemingly endless technical malfunctions, management problems and resistance from critics who question whether the warplane will be able to perform as promised and is worth its crushing costs. One report cited flaws in its fuel tank and hydraulic systems that increase the plane’s vulnerability to lightning strikes and enemy fire, especially at low altitudes. Another downgraded the single-engine plane’s acceleration rates and ability to turn. Test pilots have criticized poor cockpit visibility, which they said could get them shot down during combat. They also cite faulty software and radar, as well as ejection seats that don’t work. An engine fire in 2014 led to the grounding of the entire F-35 fleet, as well as two government reports that declared the Pratt & Whitney engines to be unreliable. The pilot’s helmet, each an individually sculpted $400,000 system that provides a 360-degree view of a pilot’s surroundings, has problems distinguishing friends from enemies. In one of the most embarrassing developments, a F-35 was pitted against an F-16 in a dogfight in July, and the aging F-16 won.
The F-35’s champions counter that the plane is designed to destroy its enemies at long distances, not in old-fashioned dogfights. But Army ground commanders who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan also question the ability of the F-35 to provide the same quality of close air support that the A-10 “Warthog” delivers. In response, lawmakers earlier this year refused the Pentagon’s request to retire the A-10s.
Officials at the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter Program Office acknowledge the warplane has had a rough gestation period. In addition to the F-35’s technical problems, they say, Lockheed Martin mismanaged the plane’s development for a decade, falling behind schedule and billing the Pentagon for needed fixes and the time required to make them. “It had gone off the rails,” Joe DellaVedova, the program’s spokesman, tells Newsweek. In 2010, after a special Pentagon panel warned of billions of dollars in cost overruns, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates restructured the program and required Lockheed Martin to cover the extra costs. He also took control of the F-35 away from the defense contractors and appointed a trusted Air Force general to run it.
Since then, DellaVedova says, the program has been on schedule. “We haven’t asked for another dime, and we haven’t asked for additional time,” DellaVedova says. “We’re operating under the premise that there is no more time and there is no more money. We’re not going back to that well.”
The technical problems that the plane has encountered over the past five years, he maintains, are now in line with the development of any large weapons system. And as those glitches get resolved, the unit price of the plane will continue to go down. Each F-35 now costs around $108 million, down from $150 just a few years ago, he says. And once the plane goes into full production in 2018, he estimates the cost will fall to about $85 million each, fully loaded. The Pentagon plans to buy around 2,500 F-35s and sell another 600 of the planes to 11 allied countries.
Yet Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Committee and one of the most voluble critics of the F-35’s cost overruns, still questions the plane’s long-term affordability. The Government Account Office says that by the end of its lifetime, the F-35 program will have cost $1 trillion. “After suffering years of unacceptable cost growth and schedule delays, the program appears to have started to stabilize,” McCain says. “Still, cost, affordability and technological changes remain.” He say his committee will be closely following the management and performance of the F-35 program. “We will hold individuals responsible,” he warns.
McCain and other critics will get plenty of opportunities to oversee the program and its additional costs. According to DellaVedova, the F-35 has completed 65 percent of its test program, which he says should be completed by 2017. Then comes what he calls “the improvement stage,” when various weapons systems are integrated for foreign buyers and new technologies are added to the American fleet. “And that, DellaVedova says,” could go on for decades.”
It another words, the F-35’s turbulent journey to the battlefield is far from over.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the F-35's price tag as $400 million.