Joint Strike Fighter: Can a Multiservice Fighter Program Succeed?

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For more than a decade, the Pentagon hasbeen developing a multiuse fighter for the AirForce, Navy, and Marine Corps. Operational andfunctional requirements developed by the JointStrike Fighter project will be used to guide theconstruction of three versions of the F-35 aircraft.The aircraft is scheduled to be delivered tothe services near the end of this decade at a costranging between $40 and $50 million per plane.

This is not the first time that the Pentagonhas tried to develop a single aircraft that could beused by more than one of the services; memoriesof the failed Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX)project from the early 1960s have haunted theJSF project at every turn. It is wrong, however, toconclude that the JSF will fail because the TFXdid so. Rather than assuming that the quest forachieving cost savings through common partsand systems (among different versions of the aircraftfor different services) was rendered moot bythe TFX, this paper compares and contrasts thehistory of the JSF with that of the TFX. The menand women involved in the JSF program havenot repeated many of the mistakes that crippledthe TFX.

But considerable time remains before the firstF-35s will be delivered to the military. Therefore,there are still risks that the F-35 will ultimatelyrun afoul of the same pitfalls that doomed the F-111--the plane spawned by the TFX project.Civilian leaders must guard against rival programscutting into the resources and politicalsupport that will be needed to see the F-35 projectthrough to completion. They must do so byengendering support for the F-35 on its merits,while resisting the temptation to build politicalsupport by turning the JSF into a jobs programin disguise. Finally, defense planners mustremain focused on the overarching goal of transformingthe nation's defenses to deal with thelikely threats in the 21st century and beyond.The three services must be put on notice that theF-35 will be the last manned fighter ever developed,with subsequent weapons developmentfocused on cutting-edge technologies that holdthe promise of delivering great capability at relativelylow cost (e.g., unmanned aerial vehicles).

Given that the JSF program has not repeatedmany of the mistakes of the past--including the mostegregious errors of the TFX program--the Pentagonand JSF program officials deserve the political supportnecessary to make the F-35 a reality.

Christopher A. Preble

Christopher Preble is an independent scholar who has written on politics and national defense for a number of publications.