In a previous post, The Good That JSF Is Doing, an anonymous commenter, while acknowledging the problems with the JSF program, posed the question, is there really a better option than to see this through? He then posed the follow up question, if we did cancel JSF, what’s Plan B?
For many people, the program really has boiled down to the sentiment expressed above. The program is a poster child for how not to run an acquisition program and we can describe a litany of problems but, at this point, it’s too late to change, many feel. There’s no realistic alternative. Is that really the case? Has it reached that sad point? Let’s look a bit closer.
From a technical and tactical perspective over the next 20+ years the JSF is either inadequate for the high end scenarios (ASB, A2/AD) due to limited range, limited payload, and only moderate stealth or it’s a vast overkill for the low end scenarios where any number of much cheaper aircraft would work just as well.
With that framework in mind, does it make sense to commit to building 2000 or so aircraft at $150M each for a total cost of $300 BILLION ?!!
To those of you who have already started to pound out your replies telling me how the JSF is going to have 360 degree magic vision, total situational awareness for 10,000 miles in all directions, act as a command and control node for the entire Western war machine, and whatever other promises have been made about it, do yourself a favor and stop reading this post. You’re the type that believes in Santa Claus and believes that one LCS and one JSF will win any war single-handed (honestly, either one could do it alone, right?). For the rest of us, the reality is that the JSF will offer modest improvements on the F-16’s dogfighting (maybe), a bit better range and stealth than the Hornet, and will be fortunate to realize half the claims made for it. The JSF will eventually be a bit better than what we have now but at a crippling cost.
The question in this post, though, isn’t about the JSF’s technical abilities but whether there’s any real option or alternative at this point. Let’s consider some alternatives. I’m going to discuss this mostly from the Navy’s perspective while acknowledging that the impact on the Air Force and our allies is equally important.
The argument for continuing the program basically boils down to the fact that the current Hornets are reaching the end of their life and if we stop the program we’ll have a gap over the next 15 years where Hornets are retiring and we have nothing to replace them with. Similarly, many of our allies are also in the position of needing an aircraft now.
Is there an alternative? Can we avoid the gap created by canceling the program? Do we even need to worry about the gap?
Alternative 1 – Cancel the program and use the $300B that will be saved to start over using the lessons learned and any technology that can be salvaged. With a better managed program, $300B can buy a lot of airplane! The thinking under this scenario is that we accept the risk of a 15 year gap. What better time? The world is relatively quiet. There is no high end threat that is considered a likely problem for the next 15 years so an aircraft gap is a reasonable risk. The lower end conflicts can be adequately handled by existing aircraft. We can continue to purchase Hornets to simply fill aircraft numbers.
Alternative 2 – The JSF offers only a modest improvement in performance and is not optimized for the ASB, A2/AD scenarios. Cancel the program and put the $300B towards improved Hornets (conformal fuel tanks, improved sensors, etc.) which the manufacturer has already developed to a large degree. We can purchase 1.5 improved Hornets for each JSF cancelled. This will buy us the time to start a new aircraft program at a relaxed and reasonable pace while still improving the aircraft fleet via the improved Hornet.
Alternative 3 – Drop the F-35C carrier version but continue the F-35B buy for the Marines. Again, the carrier version offers only modest improvements and the Hornet can continue to serve with supplemental new Hornet purchases. This mitigates the budget damage to some degree while still obtaining an improved STOVL aircraft.
Related Observation: The Navy is in the throes of a severe and worsening budget shortfall. It is quite likely that either the number of carriers will be reduced by two or three or some carriers will be placed in long term caretaker mode and their air wings deactivated. Thus, the aircraft gap that would result from canceling the JSF may well turn out to be nowhere near as severe as predicted. We may, in fact, have a few air wings worth of surplus Hornets for the next decade or more. The fact is that the Navy has already sidelined a few carriers and their air wings so this scenario is already playing out.
None of these alternatives are particularly palatable but we’ve backed ourselves into a corner which has no good solutions. However, the only thing worse than one of these alternatives is to spend ungodly sums of additional money that will cripple and kill future programs across the military while delivering a platform that is only a modest improvement and may be overmatched before it even reaches squadron service.