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Boardman writes: "Officially, the U.S. government is 'still hopeful' that its nuclear-capable F-35, already the world's most expensive war machine, might someday work as promised more than a decade ago."

The U.S. Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (photo: Reuters)
The U.S. Marine Corps version of Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (photo: Reuters)

F-35: Zombie Fighter-Bomber of American "Defense" Fantasies?

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

03 September 13


Air Force future flying high in expense after burning up on the ground

fficially, the U.S. government is “still hopeful” that its nuclear-capable F-35, already the world’s most expensive war machine, might someday work as promised more than a decade ago.

That was the best face Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall would put on the beleaguered, overdue, and over-budget “fifth generation” Joint Strike Fighter just three weeks after a test version of the F-35 burst into flames on a Florida runway. Kendall’s hope that the F-35 would make a July appearance at the Farnsborough air show in Britain went up in smoke shortly after, and the $400 billion plane’s performance since then has not encouraged much greater hope. As Kendall said in early September, "I am getting, over time, more confident that we've got our arms around that problem and are solving it."

To fulfill its full military-industrial hope, the stealth warplane will need to find reliable engines, develop software that works, win at least two more lawsuits, and find more willing buyers.

As of late August the only company that builds engines for the F-35 was in its fourth month of suspended production and delivery of those engines. The engine-maker, Pratt & Whitney (a United Technologies Corp. subsidiary), suspended production in May because it suspects its supply of Titanium is substandard. Titanium is essential to the engine. The Titanium supplier disputes Pratt & Whitney’s claim, but Pratt & Whitney has so far refused to share its test data with the supplier. The cost of developing the engine is about $68 billion so far, out of the total, continuing development cost of $400 billion.

Reportedly, Pratt & Whitney has “determined that the metal in 147 F-35 engines already delivered didn’t pose a flight-safety risk,” according to a company spokesperson. There are currently about 104 F-35s authorized to fly under limited conditions for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines within the United States.

It was a Pratt & Whitney engine that caught fire and blew parts through the fuselage of an F-35 getting ready to take off from Eglin AFB on June 23. Early reports suggested that the fire started due to “excessive rubbing” of fan blades in the after-burning turbofan at the rear of the plane. More than two months after the plane burned on the ground, the Pentagon still had no official explanation of why.

Stop the F-35 Coalition takes the Air Force to federal court

Stop the F-35 Coalition and several individual plaintiffs filed their lawsuit against the Air Force in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Vermont, on June 30 (as amended two weeks later). The 38-page amended complaint details plaintiffs’ assertion that the federal government violated federal law in making its decision in December 2013 to base 18 admittedly noisy F-35 fighter-bombers in the middle of Vermont’s most populated region. In particular, plaintiffs assert, the Air Force violated the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by failing to follow the requirements of those laws in evaluating the impact of F-35 operation on its surroundings. The Air Force has acknowledged that the F-35, operating at a sound level of 65 decibels or more, will by definition create a much larger area “unsuitable for residential use” in largely residential towns.

The Stop the F-35 Coalition complaint, prepared by Atty. James Dumont, comprises eight counts (Civil Action No. 5:14-cv-132) of violations of the law by the Air Force:

  1. Failure to Adequately Address Mitigation under NEPA;

  2. Failure to Address Conflict with State and Local Law under NEPA;

  3. Failure to Address Socioeconomic Impacts under NEPA;

  4. Failure to Identify and Evaluate Harm to Historic Properties under NEPA;

  5. Failure to Consider the Current Management Practice of Discontinuing the Vintage of F-16 Jets Located at BIA [Burlington International Airport] as the No-Action Alternative or a Reasonable Alternative under NEPA;

  6. Failure to Consider the Low-Probability Catastrophe Impacts of Exposure of the Public to Extraordinarily Toxic Particles and Fumes of Burning Carbon Fiber and Stealth Coatings under NEPA;

  7. Adoption of the Mitigation Report Without Notice to the Public as Required by NEPA;

  8. Violation of NHPA.

Each count is supported by assertions of fact and law subject to examination by the court. For each count, plaintiffs ask the court to issue a favorable declaratory judgment, injunctions to enforce the judgment, and an order that the Air Force pay plaintiffs costs.

The Air Force filed its 21-page answer to the complaint on August 28. The document flatly denies (“The allegations are denied”) most of the facts and arguments offered by plaintiffs. The Air Force asks the court to dismiss the complaint in its entirety and order plaintiffs to pay the government’s costs.

The basic issue: do the powerful get to run roughshod over anyone?

The fundamental issue in Burlington is and always has been whether supporters of the F-35 in particular and war spending in general have the right to impose their militarism on others without regard to law, fairness, or human decency. This is a national issue that the militarists have been winning since 1945 under the code words “national security.”

In Vermont the problem is structural and, effectively, colonial. The City of Burlington owns the Burlington International Airport, but the airport is not located in the city and has little impact on the city, other than revenue. The airport is located mostly in the separate towns of South Burlington and Winooski, which have no authority over the facility. The commercial airport, which is also the base of the Vermont Air National Guard, is effectively an occupying power in its host communities.

These communities bear the brunt of noise, traffic, and other difficulties created by the airport, but they receive a negligible share of the benefits. These communities are poorer and smaller than the City of Burlington and have mostly knelt in fealty to their more powerful neighbors. When the South Burlington city council raised objections to the F-35 plans a few years ago, outside money flowed into the next election and re-established a more compliant quisling government.

The Air Force comes in on the side of the richer, more powerful forces in Vermont, including the entire political leadership, most of whom are Democrats. The governor even went on a joyride to Florida to say how wonderful he thinks the F-35 is. But he and the congressional delegation don’t listen to the people most affected, and won’t even meet with them.

The residential area around the airport has been under duress for years. The federal government has bought and destroyed a portion of the homes “unsuitable for residential use” but has provided no new housing. The Air Force environmental impact study acknowledges that its plans for the F-35 will make more homes unsuitable for residential use – 997 homes with 18 F-35s, 1,441 homes with 24 F-35s.

The Air Force admits essential elements of community destruction

Given the gross power imbalance in the fight over basing 18 or 24 F-35s in Vermont, the Air Force’s admissions in the federal lawsuit are all the more illuminating.

  • The Air Force admits that “the [18 F-35s basing] decision is estimated to result in approximately 2,000 additional people being affected by noise in excess of 65 dB,” the decibel standard for rendering an area “unsuitable for residential use.”

  • The Air Force admits that it is “now implementing a mitigation and that the mitigation plan was not made available for public comment” as required by federal law.

  • The Air Force admits that “studies exist suggesting that high levels of aircraft noise are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and childhood cognitive impairment and that continuous exposure to high noise levels well in excess of 65 dB will damage human hearing.”

  • The Air Force admits that the 24 F-35s basing alternative “would cause an additional 672 acres to experience 65 db DNL noise. Within this area, an additional 3,117 individuals and an additional 1,444 households would experience 65 db DNL [day-night average sound level] noise as compared to existing F-16 noise.”

  • The Air Force admits that it ignored financial impact on the City of Winooski or on a variety of homeowners, as required by law. The Air Force admits that an “appraiser found an average loss of value of $33,534 per home in those areas of South Burlington already affected by 65 db DNL of military aircraft noise” and does not dispute the finding.

  • The Air Force admits that, while it identified two historic districts that would experience excess noise, “It did not identify the individual properties within these districts or determine the number of those individual properties. The Air Force admits that it reported falsely “that the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) had verbally concurred in the Defendant’s conclusion of no adverse impact on historic properties” when that had not occurred. The Air Force admits that, in fact, in a May 2012 letter, that officer had identified significant potential for harm to historic properties from F-35 activity and raised questions that the Air Force did not answer, as required by law.

  • The Air Force admits that NEPA requires an assessment of a “no action” plan and that “The alternative consisting of no military jets at BIA was not discussed and its impacts were not disclosed in detail comparable to that of the proposed action,” as required by law.

This case is now in the discovery phase. Typically, NEPA cases do not go to trial, but are decided based on the record compiled by the regulating agency, in this case the Air Force. The federal court will decide whether or not the record shows that the Air Force adequately followed the law.

In a similar case, pitting jet noise against residential peace and quiet, citizens of Valparaiso, Florida, sued the Air Force in 2009. The case settled before coming to trial, with the Air Force promising to take some mitigating actions.

When should U.S. stop spending on a useless airplane?

Calls for scrapping the F-35 have come and gone over the years, but the political and economic inertia of the multi-billion dollar behemoth has kept it going despite the number and variety of ways in which this weapons system continues to fail to meet any of its military expectations. Failure still makes a profit.

The financial newsletter The Motley Fool took a look at the F-35 fire and its missed air shows and wrote, with likely Freudian error where “acquisition” was intended:

… this latest development is just part of a series of problems plaguing the F-35, which now has a revised price of $398.6 billion just for accusation and development. Accordingly, this leads to the question: Is it time to kill the F-35?

... failure to appear at both [British airshows] could cost Lockheed F-35 sales, as several countries are "weighing orders" for the F-35 and a grounding isn't exactly the best sales pitch…. recurring engine problems could be cause for investor concern – no matter how advanced it is, a warplane isn't much good without a working engine.

The Motley Fool stops short of further accusation and fails to give a clear answer to the question of killing the program. But it gives no strong reason to continue the program, either, other than warmed over hope for improvement. Initially the U.S. planned to buy 2,457 F-35s, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Now that number is reported at 1,800, with another 400 in foreign sales.

The market’s increasing doubts could put the F-35 in a tailspin

Australia has signed up to buy the F-35, starting with 60 for more than $12.4 billion (almost $210 million per jet), once they’re operational. This commitment is thought to be solid for now, with future purchases much less certain.

Canada originally signed up to buy 65 of the F-35s, but now Canadian politics have put the deal on hold. Canada is actively considering buying something other than the F-35.

Great Britain is committed to buy “at least 48” of the planes, in which it also has a major manufacturing stake supporting thousands of jobs. But Italy and the Netherlands have already cut back on their original orders. Denmark’s commitment is uncertain. As the Washington Post summed it up in mid-August:

From the beginning of the program, Defense Department officials signed up eight international partners, including Canada. Since then, they’ve crossed the globe looking for additional foreign government customers with some success. Japan and Israel have agreed to buy some of the planes, while South Korea appears likely to make the F-35 its next fighter jet as well. But as Canada shows, not everyone is sold on what has become the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history…. Some fear that if nations such as Canada balk, there could be questions about the long-term affordability of the program.

Currently, Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon officials peg the “fly-away” cost of one F-35 at $110 million. That price does not all costs, including more than ten years of research and development, among others. The same officials say the price could be down to $80 million per plane by 2020.

The F-35 remains unfinished, even though it has been in production for years. There is no reliable completion date. The GAO has expressed doubts that the cost will come down as hoped. The GAO also has reservations that the F-35 will be able to perform as well as originally predicted.

U.S. Naval Institute News has reported that even the vaunted “stealth” of the F-35 may not be as good as its hype. Developments with Russian and Chinese lower-frequency radar are reportedly making stealth fighters easier to see and target. As USNI News put it: “U.S. fighters – like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) – are protected by stealth technology optimized for higher frequency targeting radars but not for lower frequency radars…. Without such capability, the Navy’s carrier fleet will fade into irrelevance….”

Greater optimism comes from the International Business Times, which reported as virtual fact that:

By the time the Lockheed Martin F-35 is fully combat-ready in 2018, it will be well on its way to 50 percent of the global jet fighter market. That success, unprecedented in the history of military aviation, could push U.S. and European current-generation fighters – which do not have the stealth capabilities of the F-35 – out of production for good….

And just how good is the F-35 anyway?

There’s no objective measure of the performance of a plane that is still in development and remains semi-grounded. There is lots of anecdotal evidence from pilots with a vested interest in the F-35’s success who can’t say enough good things about it. There’s also anecdotal chatter on military-oriented websites, like this:

NavySubNuke2 months ago
actually what is scarier is talking to an actual test pilot - the one (I admit one is a poor sample size but it is all I've got) I talked to is begging to go back to hornets after flying this. He said something along the lines of low capability boondoggle….

Diogenes2 months ago
Persistent whispers of brittle turbine blades that shatter and get sucked into engine still swirling around ... USMC testing in AZ had such a problem it is said ...

ninjacat2 months ago
What do you know about this plane that you are calling it a failed project? so lets see cut the plane, lay of thousands of people, use to money to fund welfare while national security goes further down the tube havent you learned anything from the ongoing border crisis ? or are you to dense to even comprehend how all of this work?...

tylersocal2 months ago
Welcome to aircraft development. If this was easy, every country would have their own version of an F35.

acmavm6 days ago
And maybe theirs wouldn’t burst into flame.

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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