FAIRBANKS — The Air Force has decided to put its newest piece of hardware, the F-35 Lightning II fighter, in the region it has designated as the most important strategic part of the globe — the Pacific Rim. With Alaska a part of that region, Eielson Air Force Base has risen as a contender to house a squadron of the aircraft, which has become the nation’s most expensive defense program.
So what is an F-35?
The F-35 Lighting II is one of the most-criticized weapons programs in the history of the U.S. military. It also is a long-anticipated upgrade to the air power of the Air Force as well as the Marines and Navy.
After well more than a decade of development, 75 of the more than 2,000 planes the U.S. plans to buy have been built. Throughout the next two years, the first aircraft are scheduled to begin replacing older aircraft at U.S. bases throughout the world — unless budget cuts and a political backlash against the program cause its cancellation.
Both the fanfare and the expense of the F-35 are in part factors of its mission. The F-35 was designed to be a “joint strike fighter.” Rather than replacing a single type of aircraft, it will instead replace a series of aircraft in the military inventory, including the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcons now stationed at Eielson; the A-10 Warthog, which is designed for supporting ground forces; the Navy’s aircraft carrier-based F-18 Hornet; and the Marine Corps’ AV-8B Harrier II “jump jet.”
The joint strike fighter program was created in part to save money by mass-producing variations of a single aircraft.
The aircraft comes in three flavors: a jet for a conventional runway, the F-35A; a short takeoff vertical landing variant for the Marine Corps, the F-35B; and a version designed for aircraft carriers, the F-35C. It’s the F-35A that the Air Force is searching for a home for in the Asia Pacific region.
The often-cited fact that the F-35 is the most expensive weapon in U.S. history is correct but misses part of the point, according to Mike Rein, a spokesman for F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Part of the reason the program’s price tag is about $400 billion is that the U.S. has committed to buying so many of the jets. Pointing out that it’s the most expensive program is like saying the Honda fleet is more expensive than the Lamborghini fleet, he said.
Exactly how expensive the program is depends on estimates for the cost of each aircraft — estimates that have fluctuated enormously since the joint fighter program began in 2001. In general, Government Accountability Office reports show costs have gone up, the number of aircraft the U.S. is ordering has gone down and the deadlines have been pushed back, although there’s been some improvement in the last year.
The most recent batch, a group of 32 planes in Lockheed’s fifth “low rate initial production,” sold to the U.S. military in December for $115 million a plane, according to Rein. Based on a preliminary agreement, the company expects a price decrease of about 8 percent for the next two lots, 71 planes bound for the U.S., Italy, Australia, Norway and the United Kingdom, he said.
Longtime F-35 program critic Winslow Wheeler told the News-Miner that recent optimism about the F-35 program is misplaced and accuses Lockheed of giving misleading figures by, for example, citing prices that don’t include the engine or delivery costs.
According to Wheeler, a former congressional and Government Accountability Office staffer who directs the Straus Military Reform Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Accountability, the F-35 program is in the midst of a “death spiral” in which price increases cause the numbers of orders to go down, causing further price increases.
“The current schedule (the number of aircraft that will be purchased) is far less ambitious than the original schedule, and the current schedule is not going to survive,” he said.
Wheeler argues the military should dump the F-35 and start designing a new next-generation fighter jet. But he doesn’t anticipate this Congress is going to kill the F-35. Recent cuts to the program, he said are “dancing around the ankles.” Both of Alaska’s U.S. senators support the F-35 program.
Although he anticipates major cuts to the program, Wheeler he also doesn’t see the Air Force heavily cutting Pacific-based F-35s because of the military’s commitment to increase U.S. presence in the region.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.
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