Why the F-35 Just Isn’t Good Enough

When something isn’t very good, someone may joke that it’s still “good enough for government work.” Maybe the thinker who coined that expression had the F-35 program in mind.

The F-35 (also known as the Joint Strike Fighter) is a military jet that was supposed to be able to do it all. The program was started in the 1990s with the intention that it could serve the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines and their various mission needs with only minimal changes to the initial platform. That would deliver cost savings across decades as one jet replaced (at least) three other types of planes. It seemed like a great idea in concept.

But, predictably, the jet that tried to do everything ended up having more problems than successes. By the time designers had added stealth technology, short runway functionality, and various weapon systems, they had a jet that was too bulky, too slow and too costly. “The result is an expensive jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none,” The National Interest's Dave Majumdar writes, calling the JSF “one of the 5 worst fighter jets ever made.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. By this time, Lockheed was supposed to be churning out F-35 jets at a cost of $40-$50 million each. Instead, the military now says it wants to buy 470 of the fighters, at a cost of $34 billion. That would be more than $80 million per plane, twice what was promised.

Yet even as it tries to buy more of these planes, throwing good money after bad, the Pentagon admits the JSF program is failing. The Air Force’s top testing official wrote in 2016 that the F-35 is “not effective and not suitable across the required mission areas and against currently fielded treats.”

It also falls short of existing platforms. Military analyst Dan Grazier writes, “In the air-to-air mission, the current F-35 is similarly incapable of matching legacy aircraft like the F-15, F-16, and F-22.” And when it comes to supporting troops on the ground, the one job the JSF was supposed to be designed for, “testing shows the F-35 is incapable of performing most of the functions required for an acceptable close support aircraft, functions the A-10 is performing daily in current combat.” One reason for that failure is that the F-35s guns aren’t very accurate. A report noted that pilots routinely miss their targets because of software failures.

Plus, contractor Lockheed Martin struggles to even keep the F-35 in the air. “A handful of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters built during the early days of the program could become unflyable by 2026, after just 2,100 flight hours,” Popular Mechanics wrote this year. “The culprit is almost certainly the F-35’s design and production plan, which involved starting to build the planes before the final design specifications were set.”

Just last month, the Pentagon’s Inspector General said Lockheed may have over-billed the military by more than $10 million for spare parts that were never delivered. “We determined that the DoD did not receive RFI F‑35 spare parts in accordance with contract requirements and paid performance incentive fees on the sustainment contracts based on inflated and unverified F‑35A aircraft availability hours,” a report concluded. Spare parts wouldn’t save the plane, but we shouldn’t be wasting money on parts we never even get.

The Washington Post reports that “the late senator John McCain called the F-35 a ‘poster child for acquisition malpractice’ a ‘scandal’ and a ‘tragedy’ at different points during his tenure as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.” I frequently disagreed with Sen. McCain, but he was correct here. Even after all the time and money invested, the F-35 isn’t very good.

Not very good isn’t good enough for the men and women in military uniform. They deserve the best tools our country can give them. The over-budget, under-delivering F-35 is not such a tool, and it’s not “good enough for government work.”