How Not to Buy The Most Costly Weapon System in the History of the World

New study says Pentagon used wrong strategy to buy the $400 billion F-35 fighter

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Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago / U.S. Air Force

An F-35 Lightning II flies over northwestern Florida.

The good news is that someone finally did a study to see if one-size-fits-all-services warplanes actually save the taxpayers money.

The bad news is that the answer is no.

The even badder news is that the Pentagon’s most costly weapons system ever—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which last week delivered the 100th of an expected run of 2,457 fighters for $400 billion—is precisely that kind of fighter. You, your children, and grandkids will apparently be paying more for it than they should for decades to come.

But despite such grim tidings this holiday season, that’s actually not the worst news in that new report from the Rand Corp. That would be this:

Although there have been many analyses of the potential savings from joint aircraft programs, there have been no comprehensive analyses of actual outcomes based on cost data from historical joint aircraft programs.

In other words, the Pentagon (with congressional help) has routinely been saying “trust us” when it comes to such procurements, but never following up to see if that trust is warranted.

For the past 50 years, the study says, such programs were “thought to save significant Life Cycle Cost (LCC) by eliminating duplicate efforts and realizing economies of scale.”

Turns out not to be true.

Granted, comparing complicated machines built decades apart is challenging. But before launching the F-35 program, the Pentagon had already developed such multi-service aircraft (or tried to) including the F-111, the A-7 and the F-4. You might think that proving the key reason for developing a joint warplane—to save money—would be elementary due diligence before launching a $400 billion program to develop a joint warplane.

The Rand studyDo Joint Fighter Programs Save Money?—finds that promise unfulfilled. “Although joint aircraft programs do, in theory, save costs by sharing RDT&E [research, development, test, and evaluation] resources, increasing production runs, and utilizing economies of scale in O&S [operations and support], these savings are too small to offset the substantial additional average cost growth historically observed in the acquisition phase,” Rand concludes. “Historical joint aircraft programs have not yielded overall LCC savings compared with single-service programs.”

rand-lcc chart

Rand Corp.

The two bars on the left show cost estimates at the start of the programs, with the joint warplane cheaper. The two bars on the right show how nine years later, the joint program has become more costly than single-service warplanes.

In the several programs surveyed, Rand reports that the cost of buying a joint airplane grew by 65%, compared to 24% for single-service aircraft, in the nine years following the beginning of full-scale development (known as “Milestone B” inside the Pentagon, and selected to help make comparisons among different aircraft uniform). The F-35, Rand estimates, will cost about $800 billion by that point; three separate aircraft would have cost less than $600 billion, a savings of roughly 25%.

But that’s only the money. The real danger of relying on a single aircraft is that it could endanger its pilots. “During the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force was able to rapidly upgrade one of its four jet fighters, the F-86 Sabre, to meet the surprise introduction of the Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG)-15, a Soviet-designed fighter that was more capable than any other U.S. fighter in the Air Force or Navy inventory,” Rand says. “Had the Air Force and Navy relied exclusively on a single joint fighter other than the F-86, it might not have been able to respond quickly to the unanticipated new threat posed by the MiG-15.”

The fundamental challenge of building a multi-service fighter is that one size doesn’t fit all in the war-fighting business. “They are separate airplanes,” Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester from 2001 to 2005, told Time earlier this year of the F-35’s three variants. “We would have been better off if we’d let the services go off and do their own thing.” A bonus would have been multiple plane builders—instead of a single contractor—to keep the companies on their toes, he added.

In the case of the Lockheed-built F-35, the Air Force placed a premium on stealth and speed, the Navy needed an airframe that could handle punishing carrier operations, and the Marines demanded a plane that could land vertically on its amphibious ships. What began more or less as a single blueprint for all three versions has turned into three ever-changing sets of drawings for three very different fighters.

“The idea that we could produce a committee design that is good for everybody is fundamentally wrong,” said Merrill McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994. ” “If the services can all use the same piece of major combat equipment, then you have to wonder why the services are separate.”

The Rand report confirms Christie’s and McPeak’s gut feelings. “From the Tactical Fighter, Experimental (TFX)/F‑111 program in the 1960s through the [F-35] JSF program today, the attempt to accommodate multiple operating environments, service-specific missions, and differing performance and technology requirements in common joint fighter designs has increased programmatic and technical complexity and risk, thus prolonging RDT&E and driving up joint acquisition costs,” it says. “At the same time, service-specific requirements and demands tend to produce less commonality and lead to more variants, thus reducing the main source of joint cost savings anticipated in procurement and O&S.”

Rand’s bottom line—a day late, and $400 billion short—is that the Pentagon should “avoid future joint fighter and other complex joint aircraft programs.”


The amazing thing here is that they're comparing it to the F-22 - by a very, very wide margin the most expensive fighter ever produced (fighter, not bomber) - and yet the F-35 is still more expensive.

It's also amazing how nobody saw this coming.  The F-35 is being developed as a "joint" project, but not really.  That is, each service is already getting different variants.  For example, the Marine variant is a VTOL, whereas the Air Force version isn't.  The sheer volume of additional engineering work required to turn a non-VTOL jet fighter into a VTOL is staggering.  How someone could think it would be cheaper than simply developing a standalone VTOL is mind boggling.  You don't even have to be an aircraft engineer to see this issue.  Just look up the Harrier on freaking Wikipedia and compare it to ANY OTHER PLANE THERE!  The ducts, the way the frame has to manage different stresses, the totally unique control system that allows it to transition without hitting the ground.  To think these would be easier to work into an advanced, cramped, non-VTOL fighter is insane.

Also, while I agree with kani that the F-35 is a mediocre fighter at best, we do NOT need another fighter jet anyway.  We need more drones - and Reapers, not Predators.  We have more Predators than we know what to do with already, and they can't carry enough munitions to warrant the fuel cost.  Reapers fly faster, remain on station longer, and carry nearly 4 times the armament.  Aside from those, scrap ALL the F-35's, then take HALF (not all - refund the damn taxpayers the other half) of the remaining F-35 budget and split it between additional F-22s and new Osprey variants.  Simply modifying the Ospreys to be jet-based (and possibly an AC-130 style gunship variant) will be infinitely more useful in actual combat than anything you can do within the constraints of a traditional Fighter airframe.

We aren't trying to make strafing runs over enemy tanks or shoot down opposing advanced air forces, and we can foresee exactly 0 enemies that we MIGHT EVEN POSSIBLY have like that.  We're fighting infantry with RPGs and AKs who have the patience enough to hide in a cave and wait out planes with small fuel tanks.  Better drones and Gunships that can remain on station longer are what we need now, and all we'll need for several decades to come.

So stop developing new fighters.  They're literally the only thing we need less of in the whole damn Air Force.


Actually, the US govt hasn't yet spent $400 billion on the F-35.
(I believe $400 billion will be the total R&D and procurement cost for the 2,500 F-35's that the Pentagon is planning to purchase.)
By 2014, we will have spent $87.5 billion.


We can still cancel this blunder and start over. 
America needs a much better fighter than the F-35.

Not only is the F-35 nowhere near as stealthy as the F-22, it is also very slow and unmaneuverable.
Take note that the F-35's max speed is a measly Mach 1.6.  This is even slower than the F-22's cruising speed.
Not only is the F-35 slower than any 4th generation fighter jet, it's also very sluggish.
It has the turning ability of an F-4 Phantom, with a much slower speed.

The F-35 is very much overweight. 
It desperately needs more engine thrust.  It needs TWO engines.

It also needs to be larger. 
The F-35's airframe is packed very tightly.  As a stealth aircraft, it needs to carry all the sensors and equipment inside the airframe.  It also has to have an internal weapon bay and has to carry all the fuel inside as well.  So, it's very short on space.
I also hear that the F-35 has a cooling problem; everything's packed so tightly, and with all the computers and electronic equipment, it gets hot.

The F-35, as it is, is too heavy and too tightly packed.
Lockheed has been desperately trying to reduce the plane's weight, even making the plane's skin thinner and removing safety features from the plane.
I think it will be near impossible to upgrade the F-35 in the future.
(Unless they start over and make the plane bigger and give it two engines.)

 (The F-35B's VTOL capability, btw, is the only reason that the F-35 has one engine instead of two.)

But we should forget about the F-35B.
It's had the most mechanical problems of any of the 3 F-35 versions.
Also, it will face strict operating restrictions.
Why?  Because during vertical landings, the F-35's super-hot jet exhaust will melt asphalt and concrete surfaces.
Airfields and aircraft carrier decks will need to be remade with high-strength, high-temperature concrete and special sealants in order for the F-35B to land there.
(If the F-35B tries landing on an untreated surface, the 1700-degree Mach 1 exhaust will pall surfaces and send pieces of molten pavement flying.)

BTW, the F-35B has gained so much weight that now it cannot do vertical take-offs.
So despite the F-35's many other capabilities having been degraded due to the much-vaunted VTOL capability, the F-35 can't even do VTOL well.  And it won't be able to land just anywhere vertically, because its jet exhaust is too destructive.  Which defeats the whole purpose of having a VTOL aircraft.

The F-35C has problems of its own.
It's the most delayed out of the 3 F-35 versions.
After all these years, it still doesn't have a working tail hook, so it has never even landed on a carrier.
Also, the F-35C is the heaviest and slowest of the three versions.
(For comparison, the F-35C is much heavier than the F-15E Strike Eagle, but its engine thrust is only 2/3 that of the F-15E.)
When the F-35's performance specifications were downgraded earlier this year, the F-35C suffered the worst.  The acceleration time from Mach 0.8 to Mach 1.2 was extended by a whopping 43 seconds.
No wonder the Navy is less than excited about the F-35C.

So.. other than its stealth capability, the F-35 is a complete laggard of a fighter.

But even its stealth capability is dubious.

First of all, the F-35 is only stealthy from the front.  (unlike the F-22 which is stealthy from all sides.)
Also, due to many design changes over the years, its stealth capability has become degraded.
If you look at an F-35, its exterior is nowhere as smooth as the F-22.  It has numerous bumps and lumps on its underside.  The F-35A version has a gun pod that sticks out.

Not only this, the US's enemies have been developing anti-stealth radars, and they're getting better and better.
(The US military is getting more and more concerned about these new radars.  In future conflicts, American stealth fighters may need to be accompanied by electronic warfare aircraft in order to penetrate enemy air defense networks.)

Also, there's a type of radar called OTH (Over-The-Horizon) radar that can detect all stealth aircraft and have a range of 1000s of kilometers.
(In fact, Australia has an OTH radar network, and when they were testing the F-35 there, they say that the F-35 showed up plainly on radar.)
China is currently building their own OTH radar network.
So, even the F-35's stealth capability will become obsolete shortly.

And that will be a very bad thing.  Because stealth is the only thing the F-35 has going for it.

The F-35 must avoid detection at all costs; if it is detected by the enemy, it will be a sitting duck.
It's so slow and unmaneuverable that it won't stand a chance in a dogfight.
Also, the F-35 can only carry up to 4 missiles.  (In most missions it will probably carry 2 missiles, as it is mainly a strike aircraft and simply not suited for air-to-air combat - that's the F-22's job.)
If the F-35 fires off all its missiles, it will be in big trouble. 
It won't even be able to escape from the enemy fighters, because it is so slow. 

The F-35 will be in particular trouble if it meets enemy stealth fighters.
Because they are stealthy, the F-35 won't be able to shoot missiles at them from long range.
It will be inevitably drawn into a close-range dogfight, where it is at a big disadvantage.
Currently Russia and China are developing high-performance stealth fighters that are very fast and maneuverable as well as stealthy.
The F-35 will have no chance against them.

Also, despite being a stealth fighter, the F-35 will probably have a large heat signature.
The F-35's engine is the most powerful fighter jet engine in existence, and it also gets very very hot.
(I hear that the F-35's engine heat reduction features were removed to save weight..)
The F-35's engine exhaust will be a big target for enemy heat-seeking missiles.
This will put the F-35 at an even bigger disadvantage in a close-range engagement.

All in all, the F-35 is a massive failure.
We need to cancel it NOW.


Compare with the start-up of the ACA. You don't hear GOP or Congress calling for an end to the F-35 boondoogle.


@ThomasHall The most apt comparison between the two is that they are both incompetent disasters.


The F-35 like so many of these expensive war machines are mostly military-industrial-congressional-complex pork projects that go on for years (like the Reagan-era-to-present SDI "Star Wars" anti-ballistic missile spinoffs) and never cost what they were supposed to. One good example is the one of three new aircraft carriers named after Ford, Reagan, and GHW Bush at $5 billion each. The USS Ford alone has gone overbudget at $11.7 billion. The GOP, in particular, seem to care less about our troops used as pawns in their multiple wars but care more for those big government and defense contracts and the billions paid to the 435+ GOP-approved war profiteers in Afghanistan and Iraq who wasted tens of billions while failing in their nation-building and also failing our troops in 20+ years of combined war based upon lies, arrogance, incompetence and par-profiteering greed projected to cost $6 trillion as the lifetimes of war bills and costly VA healthcare come in.


The F-35 started life as a short-takeoff, vertical-land aircraft for the Marines. It was then extended to the other three services.  So it's a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, really good at nothing.  The F-35B STOVL with its 50" vertical fan especially has had a detrimental effect on other variants, including wider fuselage, no cockpit rear visibility, limits plane to one engine, increases weight.

Stealth was added, which required a larger body to carry (limited) weapons' stores. That further limited maneuverability. The Air Force will have 1,763 F-35A fighters which can't dogfight. The stealth design also moved the tailhook on the carrier version far forward of its usual position, which has resulted in the carrier version still not able to grab the wire and so the F-35C carrier variant is unusable on carriers.


Add to that mismanagement by the Pentagon. We have a concurrent develop-test-production program with many design, reliability and quality control problems.  The Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General report said the F-35 program office’s oversight of Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor, was “inadequate,” while the Pentagon’s Defense Contract Management Agency’s oversight of contractors was “ineffective. . . .The F-35 Program did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software.” 


This results in dozens  of $200 million pre-production poor-performing planes that will have to be retrofitted to be useful. The 24 million lines of software, ten million on the plane, is way behind schedule and won't be available for five years. The logistics program ALIS, without which the F-35 can't fly, is also way behind schedule. Also the necessary helmet.

In spite of all this the Pentagon's acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, wants to increase production. The fix is in, on this plane which will cost an estimated 60% more than legacy aircraft to support in the field, with a lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion.  The Pentagon has called it unaffordable (while wanting to produce more). The JSF program has been called by a senator a “textbook” example of poor procurement.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called DOD’s relationship with F-35 fighter contractor Lockheed Martin “one of the great national scandals” during a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Along with a “chaotic” program budget, McCain cited repeated cost overruns during F-35 production that “have made it worse than a disgrace.” 


It will be better to buy the Russian T-50 than to spend so much money. T-50 is fifth generation and with better characteristic and capabilities.


Don't blame the Defense Department.  This is a congressional mandate because the F-35 has suppliers is about 400 congressional districts.  The plane is 7 years late, way over budget, can't fly in he rain, and has a heads-up display that has caused pilots to almost black out.  Cut the losses in dollars and pilot lives and make this the first sequester major Defense budget "kill". Congress set up the excuse to get rid of this before we end up with another Osprey fiasco..


Ah!  I see we are learning the one-size-fits-all lesson.....again.

Going back to the McNamara era where the more-bang-for-the-buck mindset developed it has been pretty much proven over and over that each branch needs its own aircraft.  Just because we can engineer one airframe to accommodate the very different requirements of three branches of service doesn't mean that's the right solution.  And, the competition between the F-16 & the F-18 come to mind.  Comparable in the air they were developed for very different roles and successfully too.

It's obvious the F-35 will prove to be a very capable weapons system.  Just not for each service.


Grumman on Long Island were the best in the world at building flying machines that landed on carriers. They had the specialized knowledge of how to design an airframe perfect for the rigors of mechanically assisted takeoffs and how-did-they-do-that landings on that tiny, bouncing deck. But politics, not technology, decided we no longer needed that specialized knowledge, that any graduate of aeronautical engineering could do the job, and helped everybody who understood Navy planes to become bartenders or boogie South to waste all that knowledge.

It's not the first time. The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), the only manned spaceship to land on another body, was an amazing success 40 years ago, so well engineered that when the Service Module took a hike halfway to the moon, it became a strong lifeboat. The story is the same -- we lost all that first-hand knowledge, just as Long Island lost a whole industry to another state will greedier politicians. And the US and all of us lost the race to space. China understood the gains, and since we blew that 40 year lead, is now concentrating on bettering their military and economic condition. In the interests of friendly competition, one hopes that some well-connected, but incompetent, crew in China wins the gig to grab all that money and produce way less than expected, taking way longer.

But don't count on them being as stupid as those who (twice) made insane decisions about Long Island.


@meddevguy  Agreed.  They ran a commercial on TV I saw a few days ago (might still be) where they noted all the various projects Grumman has been part of the last few years.  All were noteworthy for being successes.

Though strangely enough they didn't feature the Hellcat, without which we'd probably all be speaking Japanese right now.  Moreso than any other airplane in history, the Grumman Hellcat won the war in the Pacific.

Lockheed Martin is good at large expensive next-generation planes that land on runways longer than the runways that exist before they produce the plane.  And I mean that genuinely.  They make good planes for next-gen, experimental land-based Air Force combat roles.  They just don't seem capable of toning it down to work on a carrier.  So I agree, it's too bad they didn't split this up and give the Navy and Marine contracts to Grumman.


The F-35 is literally a flying pig - too heavy - too slow.


Like Ike said, long ago----"beware the military/industrial complex"


F35 - 'too big to fail'

Though inevitably it must....


it will be a least one other airframe should be in play...all your marbles should not be in the F35 is just not smart....and it costs MORE!!......



It's only about a trillion dollars.  Heck, with all the money we save by starving the parasites on welfare and unemployment, ending all medical research, eviscerating education, transportation and healthcare programs and then cutting all the regulatory agencies, we could afford 2 or 3 great programs like these.

The real question, though, is not how we can afford the F-35, because we simply cut all domestic programs that help people.  The real question is what on earth the damned plane is for.  What enemy has anything even close and who is really threatening us?  Besides that, why do we need another white elephant like the F-22?



According to our estimates maneuverability F-35 corresponds to the fighters of the 3rd generation. He has virtually no chance of winning.

Such super-maneuverable fighters brand "Suhoy", as the Su-35 or Su-30MKI  4++ generation will keep convincing win over the F-22 and F-35 in the demonstration of the fighting.Russia at every opportunity proposes to hold demonstrations fights, but USA each timefinds a reason to refuse under various pretexts.

It should be noted that fighters brand "Su" 4++ generation is much cheaper.




The Su-35 is a beautiful and very capable aircraft.  But my bets are on the F-22 if it ever comes to a one on one engagement.



Russia is ready to put the Su-35 against the F-22 to beat him in a demonstrative fight and increase the export of fighters of "Su" brand in other countries. If our fighters of the 4++th generation will confidently beat your 5th, it will allow to strengthen our leading position on the export of fighters in the world. 

Vladimir Putin called fighters brand "Suhoy" the best in the world. We are ready to challenge, but your country will not take such  risk. It will be a blow to the prestige of Lockheed Martin and It would hit the rating of the B.H.Obama



You may be right Sibir.  But I think a more competitive airplane to the F-22 would be your emerging T-50.  Another beautiful aircraft.


@AlphaJuliette@tom.littonIt's not the lack of cohesion that scares me.  It's the fact that few people care.  Well except for those (on both sides) that are pushing for more fighting and less solutions.

Politicians reflect society.  Democracy is built to do so.


IF a cost-effectiveness study were done, I would bet that the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II would rank at or near the top. Yet the A-10 is a weapons system that the Pentagon, and especially the Air Force, wants to scrap. "The A-10 is the best close air support platform we have today," General Ray Odierno, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in November. But Odierno is Army, so what does he know about aircraft? 

Supposedly the F-35 is going to be used for close air support, which seems to be the most import role for aircraft in an age of pop-up insurgencies. At $130 million a pop (not including weapons systems) vs ~$12 million (average, 1994 dollars) for a heavily armored craft that has incredible survivability, which aircraft do you think any rational commander would choose for close air support when faced with a bunch of insurgents armed with shoulder launched surface to air missiles and machine guns on pickup trucks?

An article in Mother Jones hit the nail on the head — the A-10 vs F-35 debate is the military–industrial–congressional complex at its worst:

"The real driver in this decision is political: A relatively cheap and low-tech aircraft doesn't help the Air Force justify huge future budgets; the luxury price tag of the F-35 does. And Congress wants the F-35, like, really bad. So bad that "budget hawk" congressmen like John Boehner were stepping over each other to get funding for an alternative engine the plane doesn't even need."


@S_Deemer ...they really need another run in competition with the 35.......Lockheed is counting on NO competition....



Yeah, ya gotta wonder why on earth they would scrap such an incredible ground support aircraft like the WartHog. I don't see another system that's supposed to replace it.  And I don't believe Cobra's or Apache's can do the job as well. 

Shaking head in wonder.


@AlphaJuliette @S_Deemer  The Apache can lock 32 targets in a matter of a few seconds, hit them in a single volley, and dodge incoming fire laterally.  It can even hit targets over the horizon if working in tandem with a spotter heli.  It's a decidedly more potent weapons system than the A-10.

That said, the A-10 is a ground attack plane.  The F-35 is a "do everything but do it poorly" plane.  I agree we should scrap the F-35, but the comparison to the A-10 isn't applicable here.  It just isn't.

And while we probably SHOULD bring back the A-10 (it is wholly retired now) the Apache remains a superior anti-tank aircraft, and we aren't fighting enemies that even HAVE tanks these days.  If we brought it back at all, the ideal thing would be to retrofit the A-10 as a dumbfire cluster bomber, intended more for cracking bunkers (or mainly, Afghan mountains) than killing tanks.  The A-10 is maneuverable enough that it could fly low, using the mounts both for radar and missile cover, and blanket a large area with several hundred small C4 munitions, which then are radio detonated, collapsing small mountains in a single strike, before hostiles can evacuate the area.  At least 2 experimental weapons exist for this already, but we lack planes with enough hardpoints to drop them all at once.  Even the F-22, due to the rotary bay launcher system, cannot do this.  The A-10 could fill this role admirably.

But it's retired, and once the military retires anything, it's gone, period.