The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Powerful lawmaker calls F-35 fighter jet a ‘rathole,’ suggests Pentagon should cut its losses

The F-35 has grown significantly over the past four years as the Pentagon drastically expanded its purchases of the next-generation fighter jet

An F-35 pilot prepares for take off from the Vermont Air National Guard Base in South Burlington, Vt. (U.S. Air Force/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee called the Lockheed Martin-produced F-35 Joint Strike Fighter a “rathole” in a virtual event with the Brookings Institution on Friday, and suggested the U.S. should consider whether to “cut its losses” by investing in a range of competing fighter jets.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), whose Seattle-area district depends heavily on Boeing for jobs and investment, said the F-35 “doesn’t work particularly well” and is too expensive to maintain. He also bemoaned the U.S. military’s long-term dependence on it.

“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” Smith said in a webcast conversation with Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon.

He characterized the F-35 as an overly expensive defense platform with disappointing capabilities. He criticized the jet’s sustainment costs as “brutal,” and said he was skeptical they would ever go down. The solution, he said, is to invest in other fighter jets so the Defense Department has a range of options at its fingertips.

“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. 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,” Smith said.

Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson moves on as her company soars to new financial heights

The F-35 is meant to serve as an attack aircraft that can carry advanced weaponry, employ sophisticated electronic jamming devices, and evade enemy detection by virtue of its stealthy design. It also has surveillance and communication capabilities that network it into the U.S. military’s other assets.

But the program is expected to cost more than $1 trillion over the course of its 60-year life span, making it the most costly weapons program in U.S. history. Its unit price recently dropped below $80 million, making it cheaper than Boeing’s competing F15-EX on a plane-by-plane basis. But the lower unit cost comes largely as a result of the fact that the Defense Department is buying more of them and spending more on the program as a whole. It has also been criticized for its high sustainment costs.

The F-35′s fortunes soared under former president Donald Trump as the Pentagon used its looser defense budget as an opportunity to buy the jets in bulk. A 2019 deal to purchase hundreds of them in a $33 billion deal was touted as the largest single procurement in the history of the U.S. military. The deal pushed Bethesda-based manufacturer Lockheed Martin’s revenue to new heights even when the coronavirus kneecapped other aerospace manufacturers.

The F-35 is widely regarded in the aviation community as an advanced fighter asset whose combination of stealth, situational awareness and firepower will deter aggression from hostile nations like Russia and China. But there have at times been severe difficulties with keeping the planes ready to fly, a problem caused largely by the logistical challenge of keeping its advanced spare parts readily available across the globe.

A power struggle over the F-35 fighter jet comes to a head as lawmaker threatens to hold up contract

The jet’s mission-capable rate, which measures the amount of time the jet is able to fly at least one of its assigned missions, has often fallen short of expectations. A 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found the overall F-35 fleet was capable of performing all of its tasked missions only about a third of the time. (On another metric, in which only “combat-coded” F-35′s are considered, the mission capable rate is much higher at around 80 percent.)

The Pentagon is already looking for alternatives. It is in the early phases of developing a completely new jet, called Next Generation Air Dominance, or NGAD, which will eventually replace the F-35. And the Air Force is also buying Boeing’s F15-EX to give it a competing option.

Doug Birkey, executive director of the Air Force Association-affiliated Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said it would be foolish to significantly scale back the F-35 program at a time when it is just coming to fruition. The United States has already sunk untold billions into its development and might as well reap the rewards, he said.

Scaling back the F-35 program at this point “would be like buying all of the lumber for a new house, getting halfway through building it, and then saying ‘you know what, I don’t want to pay for the paint,′ ” Birkey said.