F-35: Too Big to Fail?

We have been reading the reports on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with waning interest. They call it “Lightning II.” We call it “Déjà vu.” Pick your poison. It is another DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class Destroyer-to-Nowhere. It is the littoral combat ship that more than doubled in price. It is the bankrupt and canceled presidential helicopter.  Just change the name and the general facts remain about the same.

The Joint Strike Fighter reportedly is the Pentagon’s most expensive system. Defense leaders bought into the dream. Yeah, it was pricey, but DoD would come out ahead in the long run. (Their opinion, not ours.) The Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and nine allied nations all were going to the same bird. It made sense for everyone to have the same plane. (This seemed more a liability than combined advantage from the start.) And birds could be delivered quickly. (Read: Check’s in the mail.)

DoD’s Dream Machine seems to be anything but. The F-35 has been fraught with (you guessed it) cost overruns and delays. Reports say building the plane has been “difficult,” and it is running billions over budget. Defense Secretary and Occasional Superhero Robert M. Gates has described the situation as “troubling.” Worse, production is behind schedule. The Air Force delivery has been pushed from 2013 to 2015.

Our guess is things will get worse before they improve (or the program dies). We guess no one will see a full squadron of F-35s until well after 2015. Cost overruns will continue. (See programs above.) Given the size or the F-35 program, economies of scale will come into play: the size of the program will send costs further out of control at a faster rate.

Is the Joint Strike Fighter the Defense Department’s version of “too big to fail”?

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