Thanks to the provisions of the Budget Control Act and the subsequent directions of President Obama’s budget director, Jack Lew, the Department of Defense is figuring out how to trim $1 trillion from its current and planned budgets. Perhaps the principal target in the sights is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program (aka the Lightning II)—a fact that neatly encapsulates the Pentagon’s severe budgetary, programmatic, operational, and strategic problems. It’s only modest hyperbole to conclude that as fares the Lightning, so fares America’s military power.

Begin with the budgetary problem. The deficit reduction law codified the off-the-cuff defense cuts proposed by President Obama in an April speech. That speech, acknowledging that the budget crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan had eclipsed the president’s proposal from February, suggested a further defense cut of $400 billion—further, that is, than the $400-odd billion already cut in the administration’s first two years. The law also created the congressional “Super Committee” that will seek deeper deficit reductions. The legislation also carries the threat of an automatic “sequestration” of funds that would, if not altered by the committee, take another $600 billion from military budgets. Though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has declared such cuts “unacceptable,” Pentagon planners are, as a matter of due diligence, trying to figure out what they’d have to do to meet those budget targets.

There are only three places they can go to harvest cuts of that magnitude: military personnel, operations and maintenance, and the “acquisition” accounts that reflect both weapons research and procurement. The costs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have skyrocketed over the last decade. Even if the costs of combat or “hazardous duty” pay are factored out, Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service has calculated that the annual per-troop price of the All-Volunteer Force has risen from less than $60,000 from 1972 to 2001 to almost $90,000 today. Thus, even though reductions in Army and Marine manpower are already baked into Pentagon plans, the overall personnel budget will continue to rise. Making the cuts contemplated in the Budget Control Act will likely mean further reductions of tens of thousands, but deeper troop cuts would be difficult—and extremely risky.

The “O&M” pot would appear to be a more lucrative target, and savings from these accounts are the dream of every good-government Pentagon reformer. The dream, but never the reality, as former Pentagon chief Robert Gates discovered in his quixotic 2010 quest for “efficiencies.” Cost growth in operations and maintenance is staggering: Daggett estimates that even if defense spending remained the same (after inflation), O&M would consume half the Pentagon’s budget by 2020. But the category is a catch-all: It includes elements such as the defense health service, which treats veterans, reservists, and families as well as active troops. And the effect of past O&M cuts has been felt in reduced training and unit readiness—the most deserving suffer first. The dream of big O&M savings will remain a dream. The best that can be hoped for is to constrain the rate of growth.

Much of the budget-cutting pain will thus inevitably be felt in acquisitions. Daggett forecasts that such spending, about $185 billion in 2010, will drop to less than $127 billion by 2020—and could be less than that, if the super committee either does its worst or simply does nothing. And here’s how the F-35 finds itself in the center of the bull’s-eye: It’s where the acquisition money is.

Welcome to the world of the defense programmer. The first two rounds of Obama defense cuts eviscerated a generation’s worth of weapons projects. The 2009 round, in particular, short-circuited big-ticket items like the F-22 Raptor fighter, the Zumwalt destroyer, and the Army’s Future Combat Systems. The 2010 round policed up some of the smaller fry like the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. By the reckoning of the Pentagon’s last “Selected Acquisition Report,” the annual scorecard for weapons programs, the F-35 dwarfs all other efforts. And if one simply calculates money planned but not fully programmed or spent—in other words, the most fertile fields for harvesting future savings—the F-35, with about $300 billion needed to complete the planned buy, is an order of magnitude larger than any other program on the books. Considering that it’s long been planned to replace nearly the entire fleet of aging U.S. fighters and a good number of support aircraft, the cost is no surprise and still, in fact, a bargain. Nonetheless, the temptation to plunder the F-35 budget is overwhelming.

The Navy is almost eager to do so. On July 7, Navy undersecretary Robert Work told Navy and Marine Corps planners to develop alternative aviation plans that look at terminating both the short-take-off “B” model for the Marines and the carrier “C” model for the Navy. In standard Goldilocks fashion, Work called for three options: Cut $5 billion, cut $7.5 billion, cut $10 billion. And, ominously, Work directed his minions to divine “the best-value alternative, factoring in both cost and capability. .  .  . This relook must consider every plan and program. Even cuts to long-planned buys of JSF must be on the table.”

Now to the operational rub. Since World War II, America’s sea services have been, first and foremost, organizations built around the virtues of carrier aircraft—this includes the Marine Corps, whose big-deck “amphibs” are almost as large as any non-American aircraft carrier. Clever defense analysts have begun to castigate carriers as “wasting assets,” too vulnerable to the kind of ballistic missile and other attacks that the Chinese military is developing. But it’s equally the case that a carrier without a front-line aircraft—that is, the fifth-generation F-35—is an entirely wasted asset.

Today’s E/F model of the F/A-18 is a superb “fourth-generation” strike fighter; it does more, carries more, and goes farther than the earlier version of the Hornet. But it’s not stealthy, and employing the F/A-18 against modern air defense either requires an elaborate air defense suppression campaign—with all sorts of electronic and other support aircraft—or suicidal desperation. The Marines, whose amphibs rely on the old and finicky Harrier jump-jet for their firepower, are even more limited.

In sum, it makes no sense to retain massive carrier fleets with ever-more-limited capability. If the Navy and Marine Corps can’t afford to put a China-relevant plane aboard their carriers—and a China-relevant “unmanned” aircraft is not on the horizon—they should stop building the carriers, too, and even mothball some of the ones they have now.

Terminating the “B” and “C” models of the F-35—let alone reducing the numbers of “A” models intended for the Air Force—would have dire strategic consequences. The F-35 is an international program, and the roster of countries who have contributed money to the development of the Lightning or who want to buy the plane is a veritable who’s who of America’s allies. Britain alone has committed about $2 billion to the project, and the Italians, Dutch, Canadians, Danes, Australians, Norwegians, and Turks are already on board and will build parts of the jet. The Israelis want to get F-35s by 2014 if they can, and the Singaporeans are lined up just behind; both countries—states little larger than aircraft carriers—are interested in the short-take-off “B” variant on the assumption that their current air bases are increasingly vulnerable. Japan and South Korea—absolute linchpins of U.S. posture in East Asia—are likely candidates for sales, assuming there’s still something for them to buy in a few years.

A big hit on the F-35 program would also be catastrophic for the defense aviation industry, both in this country and in the West generally. A generation ago, seven companies made airplanes for the U.S. military. Now Lockheed Martin, the only firm to have made a fifth-generation aircraft, leads an international consortium of companies who make pieces of planes. The F-35 factory in Fort Worth is enormous, with the capacity to accommodate the Pentagon’s original plans to buy over 230 Lightnings a year. But with past reductions keeping production at just 30 or so airplanes annually for the next couple of years, and talk of making similar cuts beyond that, the capacity will be increasingly unused—and the workers laid off.

Defending the F-35 program is politically incorrect. It’s been a favorite punching bag for congressional overseers and often in “breach” of the cost-growth targets of the so-called “Nunn-McCurdy” law—a 1982 provision that was a grandstand play back then and is entirely outdated and irrelevant now. Senators John McCain and Carl Levin, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have proposed a new amendment that threatens to end the program while also renegotiating past contracts. Even Gates put the F-35B on “two-year probation,” whatever that means.

But preserving the program is essential for America’s defense for the foreseeable future. We’ve put an immense number of eggs in this basket, and it’s just about the last basket we have—there are no short-term alternatives, and taking away the F-35 would render the surface Navy and Marine Corps all but -useless in responding to the kind of “anti-access” challenges China now presents and others like Iran are developing.

Memo to super committee: Save the Lightning!

Thomas Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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