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Reporter Debrief: Is The Air Force Turning Its Back On the F-35s?

A photo of an F-35 jet on the runway at the South Burlington Air National Guard Base in January 2021.
Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell
U.S. Air National Guard
Pilots, crew and maintenance workers with the Vermont Air National Guard drill with the F-35A fighter jets from the South Burlington Air National Guard Base in January 2021.

After decades in development and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, the F-35 fighter jet has proven difficult to maintain, and its systems are plagued by inconsistencies, software deficiencies and cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Now some in the Air Force say it's time for the military to cut its losses and move on, possibly to a new aircraft. What does that mean for the Vermont Air Guard’s fleet of the jets?

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke to David Axe, a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina who’s a staff writer forForbes, where he covers aerospace and defense and wrote about the F-35s in the article "The U.S. Air Force Just Admitted The F-35 Stealth Fighter Has Failed." Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Could you recap what a recent report from Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown has to say about the F-35?

David Axe: He did not plainly say that the F-35 is a failure. He strongly implied it. Senior military officials rarely plainly say anything is a failure. That's just not the way that the culture of the Pentagon works. What Gen. Brown said is that the F-35 is a Ferrari, and you don't drive a Ferrari every day, you save it. The implication of his statement is that the Air Force needs a Corolla that it can operate every day.

That is not a surprise to anyone who has been following the F-35 program. It was evident more than 10 years ago that the F-35 would not be cheap, affordable and available in large numbers. It's too complex, conceptually flawed, it's mechanically unreliable, it's got software problems and it's expensive.

How expensive for taxpayers?

To buy a single F-35 cost about $100 million. To fly, it costs about $35,000 an hour. To put that into context, a new F-16 — that airplane is still in production after 40 years — cost millions of dollars less to buy, and about two-thirds as much, if not half as much to fly on an hourly basis.

Vermonters who were opposed to the jets being based in Vermont were concerned primarily by noise pollution issues; decibel levels, things like that. But some people argued that if the jets were to have a systems failure or something else that would lead to a crash, the impact on the densely-populated areas they fly over — cities like Winsooski, or Burlington — would be terrible. Whereas if they were being flown in Utah, which was also vying for the jets, it at least wouldn't lead to more tragedy, if the plane crashed in the desert, let's say.

Are there any concerns over these jets being in danger of air flight failure, or is this really more of a weapons failure kind of issue?

It's a programmatic failure. The airplane is no more or less safe than any fighter jet or any military aircraft. No, the danger for the F-35 is not that it is going to crash on your house. The danger of the F-35 is that it's a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The Air Force is going to buy these airplanes, whether we like it or not, and whether it likes it or not. It's just not going to buy as many of them as it said it would. It's not going to buy them as fast, and it's going to buy them at higher cost and use them less than it thought it would. Because it's just not reliable enough and cheap enough and simple enough to replace the airplane it was supposed to replace.

You said the Air Force is going to buy these planes, whether other people want them to or not, or even if they, the Air Force, wants to or not. What do you mean by that?

A program like the F-35 has momentum that even the Air Force itself could not halt.

It's ultimately going to be a more-than-a-trillion-dollar program, over its life span of half a century. It's going to support many tens of thousands of jobs, in probably every state, and jobs overseas, as well. It is the flagship program of a very large American company, Lockheed Martin, actually several very large American companies. It has strong Congressional support, even if an individual Senator or Congressman might object. So even if the Air Force said today, we want no more F-35s, Congress decides what the Air Force buys, and Congress can force the Air Force to acquire aircraft. It does it all the time.

What comes next? They’ve rejected the idea of buying more F-16s, so is the military going to pivot to a new jet now? And say, well, the F-35s didn't work out the way we wanted, but the next one will?

The Air Force has already pivoted to new aircraft. There's another stealth fighter in development, the so-called “Sixth Generation Air Dominance Platform.” That's supposed to be a big, fast, heavy fighter to replace the F-22 in a few years.

There's mysterious talk of some kind of fighter prototype that's flown in the past couple of years.

But some folks in the Air Force have begun to talk about building a new “lightweight fighter.” So, another F-16 — not the F-16, but something like it: something cheap, small and reliable. So, you're asking, can we buy something simple and cheap?

Well, that's really hard for the American system to do, because our defense industry is powerful. It likes big, monolithic programs that are un-killable, [it likes] to pack it with all sorts of technology that a lot of people have a lot riding on. To have so many different parties within the military and within Congress and in industry invested in a single program that eliminating that program or even cutting back that program would hurt so many people that [to hurt or end the program] would become politically impossible.

There's incentive in the way that we've designed our government and industry to create big, complicated technology that we can't end.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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