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Geopolitics of Weapons Systems: The foundering F-35 program

August 31, 2012

Terrific, if worrying, article at Foreign Affairs on the decaying position of the United States in the global weapons trade.  The American reputation for building sophisticated weapons systems creates networks of dependency with other nations that tie them further into the US strategic schema.  However, the US share of the market has been decreasing as the cost of some of its weapons systems has skyrocketed.  A case in point is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  As a fighter, the F-35 is clearly inferior to the F-22 Raptor, which production President Obama halted early in his presidency.  The advantage that the F-35 had was that it was cheaper and that, while not a top rated aerial combat plane, it could successfully carry out ground support missions.  Also, it was to be built in three variants (conventional, carrier based, and short take off and landing) with enough similar parts that there would be an economy of scale.

However, the costs of the F-35 have skyrocketed, so it is now nearly as expensive as the Raptor, while it has failed to meet its performance requirements.  And, on top of that, it is nearly 5 years behind schedule, leaving allies who expected deliveries in the lurch.  The Dutch voted earlier this summer to bail out of the program, while others have cut back their support by shrinking their purchase commitments.  Last spring, aviation experts told Foreign Policy that the F-35 was a failure that could never be fixed and had to be scrapped.

It will take a lot of guts to cancel the 2nd of two fifth generation fighters, especially after the billions that have already been poured into it.  I doubt that we can expect the current administration to do so.  I wonder if a Romney presidency would do it?  Romney’s business history indicates that he knows how to cut underperformers and also knows when to stop throwing good money after bad.  He will also (in my opinion) have to show a willingness to cut defense spending – or at least defense programs – if he wants to get broad support for his other budget plans.  But, if there is no alternative design ready to get rolling, would any president be willing
to summarily end a signature defense program?

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