The F-35 boondoggle

Nowhere is the power of business to drive US government actions more glaringly obvious than the way that taxpayer money gets spent on weapons systems that are not needed and sometimes don’t even work. The defense industry has long ago figured out that if you spread out production facilities around the country and especially in places where key politicians are from, you can be pretty confident that the system will never be eliminated, even if the military itself does not want it.

Stephen Colbert looks at the latest examples of this absurd way of spending money, especially a fighter jet called the F-35.

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(This clip aired on February 25, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. says

    The crazy bit about the F-35 is that its complete CAD and component plans have leaked. That’s the aircraft that the DoD was making a big deal about chinese cyberspies having stolen 14tb of data from the air force. Meanwhile, it’s a joint NATO development project and there are something like 30 defense contractors in the US and goodness knows how many others in 12 or more countries that are involved in this oh-so-secret system. Probably everyone except Edward Snowden had access to that data; you can’t expect a secret to remain secret with that many contractors involved.

    And the F-35 is a piece of shit. As the plane became more complicated and expensive, planners threw the program into a death-spiral by telling their constituents that the plane would do more. So it’s a fighter, and a bomber, and a weapons payload platform, and it’s stealthy and it’ll cruise at supersonic speeds. Um, yeah, right. It also casually violates the laws of physics. Of course it’s insanely complicated. Which drives the costs up, and it’s very high tech, which drives the costs up, and if one component in the entire dependency chain to making a functioning aircraft fails, you wind up with a hangar queen that flies like a dog. We can’t be sure yet that the F-35 is a dog or not, because it hasn’t been flown that much and its performance envelope is a moving target. But think of an engineering project that was intended to build a Ferrari mini-bus that would out-perform an Enzo, while still hauling 12 people and towing a trailer.

    Fortunately for the US, there’s probably no chance the F-35 will get used against a comparable-role aircraft – for the same reason that the Air Force prevented demonstration dogfights between F-15s and F-16s: the air superiority fighter was decidedly mediocre and the specs of the top of the line Russian stuff was better. You can’t be an air superiority fighter if you have worse range and can’t turn or climb as fast as the plane you’re most likely to fight in a real air battle. The F-35 is expected to be able to do ground support (which it cannot, ever possibly, do as well as an A-10) and be stealthy. How does that even work? The A-10 is designed to be survivable within visual range of enemy troops; that’s why it’s hardened to resist ground fire. F-35? Haaahahaahahahah! Forget it! Never mind that it’s probably not good enough to do the role well, it’s too expensive to risk in an environment where a couple AK-47 rounds could wreck a $305 million aircraft. That’s not a typo. One reason that the F-35 will stay in the hangar – except at night and against helpless enemies – is because it’s so expensive that losing one would be a severe blow.

    This is all part and parcel of what Chuck Spinney calls “the defense department death-spiral” – he describes the entire process here: in a brilliant paper that eviscerates the procurement process (though there’s a bit much DoDese in Spinney’s language) It’s hjghly worth the read.

  2. says

    the Saab Gripen.

    Which is a perfectly good aircraft for most of the purposes it would ever be put to. For crying out loud,Vietnam-era F-4 Phantom IIs would have been perfect for use in Afghanistan and Iraq and probably more reliable as well.

  3. lorn says

    A-10s, M-1a, B-1b are all of great concern to ground troops. All are seen by ground troops as saviors, force multipliers, protectors of the guys who pound dust and wake up outnumbered and surrounded by people who wish them no good.

    The A-10 is the only aircraft capable of sustained loiter and air support that is low and slow enough to spot its own targets and deliver limited firepower close enough to the target to do any good without wiping out an entire zip-code. Yes, you can lob in missiles and bombs but if the troops can’t spot targets and illuminate them they are shooting blind because you can’t spot small targets at 5000 feet and 500 miles per hour. The whine of an A-10 flying overhead is a great comfort to any ground unit and a major discomfort to any adversary. They are so well know and so deeply feared they have broken up major attacks without firing a shot; by just flying over. A-10s have saved hundreds of troops.

    The M-1, as limited as it is, at 60 tons each they are devilishly hard to move around the globe, makes a big impression everywhere it goes. Park a tank out front and any potential enemies have to swallow hard before moving. They are not indestructible but they are extremely tough targets and if you don’t knock it out on the first try you are in deep trouble. Deployed in twos and threes many opponents just pick up and set their sights on easier targets.

    The B-1b, and to a lesser extent the venerable B-52, are seen as the infantryman’s friend. They can circle an area for hours waiting for a call for help. For anyone seeking to attack US ground troops seeing a circular contrail overhead was very bad omen. A mix of large and small bomb, released a few at a time over hours, were an isolated infantryman’s support from on high. All just a few moments away.

    The B-1 has special abilities that make it particularly good at that mission. With wings swept back it has a very high dash speed. About 200mph, roughly 30%, faster than the B-2. That means if they aren’t already overhead they can get there faster than any other bomber. A great comfort for hard pressed ground troops that need help now. Then, once they get in the area, they can swing the wings forward and fly slow to save fuel. That means they get there faster and stay longer. Smaller fighter bombers just can’t do the job as well.

    In the future there may be robotic/drone aircraft that might do those jobs as well, if not, better than the A-10 and B-1. Without pilots on board you can make the airframe smaller and lighter, you can fly them with verve knowing that if they get shot drown or crash there are no pilots to be captured and ransomed back. But, until such time as those systems are produced, matured, and proven you don’t casually toss out the systems that are working.

  4. kyoseki says

    If Apple’s in your district, you make damned sure that the military is always equipped with the latest iPhone, even if they’ve never asked for it or even want it.

  5. dysomniak "They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred!" says

    @2 and for all that it’s still a more reasonable proposition than the F-22 was. Assuming there’s some definition of “reasonable” that can encompass flying death machines with nine-digit price tags.

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