Monday, March 18, 2013

The F-35 Debate: Vermont vs. The Flying Brick

PJC NEWS - It was odd to read in the Burlington Free Press that Vermont Adjutant General Michael Dubie has hailed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a “national treasure.” But the real shock is that Vermont’s congressional delegation -- Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, and Peter Welch -- have fallen into the role of cheerleaders about the prospect of basing the plane in South Burlington.
     As Dubie and Vermont's representatives in Washington ought to know, the F-35 is a classic boondoggle. At a cost of one trillion and counting it's the most expensive Pentagon weapons program ever. One reason is that it would use stealth technology, which is extremely expensive to produce and requires the manual installation of 60,000 rivets. Within the military, the F-35 has become known as a “flying brick” that won’t end up doing anything well. 
     In fact, some Pentagon managers think it should be scrapped.

Video of May, 2012 Public Hearing
Available on YouTube
   According to Pentagon procurement expert Winslow Wheeler, the original idea for the F-35 was to replace the F-16. But then the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) added the technical bells and whistles, hoping to produce a plane that could be used for not only for air-to-air fighting but also for air support and stealth missions. In other words, it is supposed to address the needs of three different military services. The result? Although it replaces the Air Force A-10, for example, it reportedly represents a step backward.
     A faction in the Navy has publicly criticized the plane, especially the idea of its so-called “multi-role.” Maintenance and support carry a high price tag – $700 million over the lifetime of a single plane. The engines reportedly run so hot that they can melt the decks of aircraft carriers on vertical takeoff and fatigue the metal beneath.
     The conventional wisdom that led to this technological dead end is that the US can no longer afford to build special purpose planes for different branches of the military. Thus, the bright idea was to produce hundreds of multi-purpose planes. But there is no example of a “multi-role” design that has been successful and affordable.
     An International consortium was developed to promote sales. At first eight nations were convinced to commit and participate in co-production in the expectation of obtaining benefits down the line. However, several of the partners are having second thoughts. Denmark and the Netherlands have been delaying their contribution, Britain may cut support, Australia is asking questions, and Israel is getting nervous.
     The obvious solution, according to insiders, is to build a larger number of more effective planes. For example, experts have recommended using some of the money being wasted on the F-35 to fund the F-16 and A-10, updating older models and improving airframes, and building a bigger F-15e or more F-18s, which cost a lot less.
     Politicians like to take credit for bringing federal projects to the state. But in this case, rather than focusing on the prestige of having a new weapons system located in Vermont, or on possible jobs that may not actually materialize, shouldn't our elected representatives be worrying more about how such wasteful, ineffective spending affects both the deficit and real military readiness? 
     Sure, having the F-35 based in South Burlington will be noisy. Anyone who lives near the airport can imagine what that will be like. But there are even more compelling reasons to stop competing for this flying brick and look at more sensible and affordable alternatives. 
- Greg Guma
Originally published November, 2010

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