Rethinking the Joint Strike Fighter

Although F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-22 Raptors have received most of the attention in recent years, the Pentagon plans to buy less than 1,000 of those two planes combined—and nearly 3,000 joint strike fighters. The first two aircraft programs are estimated by CBO to cost a total of about $115 billion (in 2000 dollars), whereas the joint strike fighter will likely approach $225 billion.

Now, the Pentagon is thinking seriously about making the JSF program even more expensive by divvying up the total production run among two companies, so that the nation’s fighter production base does not shrink to just a single firm. Unfortunately, that would increase unit production costs by at least 10 percent—which, for a $225 billion program, is real money. Given expected Pentagon budget crunches in the years ahead, the Defense Department needs to find a way to make the JSF program less rather than more expensive. The solution is to buy a modest number of joint strike fighters, at a single production line—and to otherwise reequip most of the military’s tactical fighter fleets by buying existing planes like the F-16.

First, a word on truth in advertising. The joint strike fighter gets better press than it deserves in the cost-containment category. Most of us have been tricked into describing that plane as a $29 million a copy aircraft, making it seem competitive even with existing F-16s.

Nothing could be further from the truth. That $29 million figure appears to be expressed in 1994 dollars, and to represent flyaway costs rather than unit procurement costs—a distinction that seems arcane, but that is important here. Correcting for these two distortions in how the Pentagon describes the price of the plane, the unit procurement price is better estimated at $43 million for the Air Force version of the JSF—and at slightly more than $50 million for Marine Corps and Navy variants.

Not only that, but these numbers ignore likely cost growth. One must salute the Department of Defense for trying to keep the price of the JSF within bounds, and commend its decision to view cost as an independent, important variable in the fighter’s development program. But those facts will not ensure zero price growth. More likely, according to CBO, are unit procurement costs of $65 million for the Air Force’s version and about $77 million for those of the other two services. Compare those numbers to $25 million for the F-16, $36 million for the Harrier, and $48 million for the F/A-18C/D Hornet (again, in 2000 dollars).

None of this would matter if the Pentagon’s books were otherwise balanced, or if most of the projected federal surplus could be expected to head the Department of Defense’s way. But DoD faces an annual funding shortfall of at least $20 billion and perhaps more like $30 billion to $50 billion in the years ahead. Meanwhile, neither presidential candidate is spending much time on the campaign trail talking about defense spending initiatives. Governor George Bush is more concerned about tax cuts and giving programmatic meat to his compassionate conservative agenda; Vice President Al Gore has promised a modest part of the non-social security surplus for the Pentagon, but is emphasizing domestic priorities such as education, the environment, and health care—all of which can lay claim to large parts of the projected surplus.

Fortunately, there is another way. It can also do much to ensure the health of the defense industrial base, while at the same time conforming with the proposals of those who anticipate a coming revolution in military affairs.

An alternative approach to fighter modernization would produce a significant, but much-reduced, number of JSF aircraft. The Navy and Marine Corps might scale back their purchases by 20 percent or so, on the grounds that the JSF is so much more capable than the planes it is to replace. The Air Force would scale back its purchases dramatically. Rather than buy more than 1,700 JSF, it might purchase 500, largely to attack well-defended or mobile targets. The Air Force would buy more F-16s to make up the difference, and equip them with improved munitions, sensors, and C-cubed capabilities—the heart of the purported revolution in military affairs that many defense specialists anticipate today. Doing so would hardly amount to standing still technologically.

The overall savings from this set of changes to the JSF program would total more than $50 billion. In fact, savings could approach $75 billion compared with an approach that created two separate JSF production lines, as the Pentagon now seems to be considering. If Pentagon budgets turn out larger than now expected, this approach may even leave a bit more money available for innovative defense programs in the future that would respond to new security threats.

Under this proposal, all JSFs would be produced by a single supplier. Lockheed Martin, the producer of the F-16, could either drop out of the JSF competition, divest itself of the F-16 line if it won the JSF contract, or perhaps develop a firewall arrangement to keep two separate development and production teams under its single corporate roof.

A final benefit of this approach is that the nation’s aging tactical aircraft inventory could begin to be replaced quickly. Rather than push our luck with the F-16, hoping that it will fly 8,000 hours as the Pentagon now dares to dream, we could begin to replace it soon, and do so affordably. Under existing plans, fighter replacements would likely come too late. In fact, they could be further slowed due to JSF cost growth and Pentagon budget shortfalls in the years ahead, which would probably mean that the Pentagon would have to stretch out its purchases of the new plane due to affordability concerns.

In short, revising the JSF program makes budgetary sense, conforms with most of the top priorities of enthusiasts for a revolution in military affairs, and ensures a healthy, safe, and reliable tactical fighter fleet into the future.