Magazine article The American Conservative

Stealth Turkey: The Trillion-Dollar F-35 Is an Easy Target

Magazine article The American Conservative

Stealth Turkey: The Trillion-Dollar F-35 Is an Easy Target

Article excerpt

Congressman Paul Ryan's laudable if sometimes misguided efforts to trim the federal deficit deserve support. So here's an idea for him. Want to lose a trillion dollars in ugly budget fat? Cut off the F-35 fighter/bomber.

$1 trillion is now the estimated lifecycle cost of the F-35. Some calculations place the figure even higher, closer to $1.5 trillion.

How could the president and Congress contemplate spending that much for an airplane? The answer goes back to the futility and vast casualty count of World War I on the Western Front. Even before that bloodbath ended, men were searching for a better way to make war, one that would collapse an opponent quickly with comparatively small losses. Air power seemed to offer the answer. While strategic bombing had failed in World War I, General Giulio Douhet in Italy and General Billy Mitchell in the U.S., among others, thought it was the key to rapid victory.

It wasn't, but as propagandists Douhet, Mitchell, and company were highly able. They created a myth that surrounded military aircraft of all types, not just bombers. The associated myth of the fighter pilot as the new white knight added gloss. Today, politicians and the public overestimate what aircraft bring to war. That is why both turn out in large numbers for air shows, and it is also why the notion of spending a trillion dollars for an airplane does not get laughed to death.

If we turn from myths to facts, we quickly see that the F-35 is unnecessary. The United States already has the world's best fighter planes in the F-15 and F-16. How we got them is a story relevant to the F-35.

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Air Force was working to design a new fighter. As each element of the bureaucracy added its favorite bells and whistles, the plane grew in size, weight, complexity, and cost, while combat effectiveness fell--just what has happened to the F-35.

Desperate to reverse the trends, the Air Force called in an ornery, eccentric fighter pilot named John Boyd. Boyd, who developed the energy-management tactics now used by fighter pilots everywhere, converted the tactical qualities a fighter needs into a new set of maneuverability measurement equations that could be applied to fighter design. He turned the incipient turkey into the F-15, a good if overlarge fighter. (Small size is important in fighters because the bigger the plane, the easier it is for the enemy to see and thus take by surprise.)

When the Air Force bureaucracy persisted in adding weight and complexity, Boyd and his civilian associate Pierre Sprey kept working the equations. Their goal was a fighter of half the size and weight of the F-15 with higher maneuverability and a lower price. The outcome of that work was the F-16, which was both better as a fighter than the F-15 and much cheaper. Needless to say, that achievement made Boyd and Sprey the most hated men in town.

The Pentagon says the F-15 and F-16 aren't good enough now because they aren't "stealth" aircraft like the F-35. The problem is, stealth is a fraud. Supposedly, enemy radars cannot pick up stealth planes. But they can. Early in our 1999 war with Serbia, the Serbs shot down one of the Air Force's stealth F-117 fighter/bombers. Beside the wreckage, they put a sign, in English: "Sorry, we did not know it was supposed to be invisible. …

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