US congressman says F-35 is a “Rathole”

  • Congressman Adam Smith is calling to end funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
  • The congressman calls the plane a “rathole” and says it should be replaced by a range of different jets.
  • The F-35 may deserve termination, but in practical terms, it’s just not possible.

The new head of the House Armed Services Committee has called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter a “rathole” and wants to halt funding for it. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., suggested the Pentagon should “cut its losses” and invest in a range of jets.

But is that even possible? As usual, the truth is complicated.

In a webcast conversation with the Brookings Institution on March 5, Smith said the F-35 “doesn’t work particularly well” and is too costly to keep up, per the Washington Post:

“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” Smith said.

He characterized the F-35 as an overly expensive defense platform with disappointing capabilities. He criticized the jet’s sustainment costs as “brutal,” and said he was skeptical they would ever go down. The solution, he said, is to invest in other fighter jets so the Defense Department has a range of options at its fingertips.

As the Post points out, Smith’s congressional district in Seattle is heavily dependent on aviation giant Boeing, the builder of the F-15EX Eagle and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. Boeing’s chief competitor is Lockheed Martin, the builder of the F-35.

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Is the F-35 actually a “rathole”? Smith’s comment comes after recent allegations that the F-35 program has failed to produce an effective, affordable fighter jet and reports that the U.S. Air Force is studying the acquisition of a new fighter jet. That “4.5-generation” fighter would be cheaper to buy and fly than the F-35 and replace the F-16 in Air Force service—a role originally reserved exclusively for the F-35.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was an overly ambitious attempt to replace several widely disparate fighters and attack jets with a common airframe. The Pentagon designed the F-35 to replace the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Warthog, the Navy’s F/A-18C Hornet, and the Marine Corps’ F/A-18C and AV-8B Harrier II jets.

A single airframe, with modifications both small and large across the fleet, would replace multi-role fighters; mud-moving, close air support aircraft; carrier-launched fighters; and short take-off and vertical landing fighters.

united states air force lockheed martin f 35a lightning ii
U.S. Air Force F-35A at RAF Fairford, July 2018.

The F-35’s problems (and there are a lot of them) are well documented. All three flavors of the jet—the Air Force’s -A model, the Marine Corps’s -B model, and the Navy’s and Marines’ -C model—were at least 3 years late entering service, and even today, there are problems with the jet’s readiness and high cost-per-flight hour.

Scores of the jets need important updates to the latest version, a legacy of the Pentagon’s decision to begin production of the aircraft before engineers finalized the design and worked out the kinks. The F-35 still suffers from a lack of testing and lingering issues that need to be addressed before the plane enters full-scale production.

test flight
The carrier takeoff and landing version of the F-35, the F-35C, takes flight for the first time, 2011.

So yes, the F-35 is arguably a rathole. But does that mean the Pentagon should stop “throwing money” at the F-35 program? No way.

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The F-35 program is literally too big to fail and must succeed. The fighter jet replaces too many older planes, many of which have no credible alternative. The Pentagon would need to design and build multiple alternative jets, which would cost too much money at a time when the defense budget will likely remain flat—or very close to it—for the next decade.

Too many air forces, including many of the U.S.’s NATO and Asian allies, have bought into the F-35 program to walk away from it, leaving them holding the bag.

This is obviously a poor place to be in, and it’s painful to admit that such a troubled program can’t be killed. The Pentagon, in choosing one airframe to replace four different airframes, painted itself, defense contractors, taxpayers, and America’s overseas allies into a corner.

Could the military continue to buy older, albeit updated jets such as the F-16V, F-15EX, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III, while continuing to fly the A-10 and AV-8B? It’s possible. But a lack of stealth on those platforms would be limiting.

Stealth is more than hype, and while it’s clear the feature is exceptionally expensive, it’s also clear having radar-evading qualities baked into the aircraft is essential on the modern aerial battlefield.

Living with the F-35 is the only realistic course of action the U.S. and its allies face. The Pentagon must squeeze more weapons into the plane’s internal bays, figure out a way to keep it flying longer and farther, upgrade every older jet, and fix existing issues—all spread out among hundreds of already-built jets.

Most importantly, the Pentagon must get the cost-per-flight hour down to $25,000 by 2025, making the jet affordable to actually, well, fly. Some of these problems will be solved, and some won’t. Whatever the case, let’s never build another fighter like this again.

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