Thinking the unthinkable about the F-35

It seemed untouchable: Too big. Too important. Too connected. But could even it become an austerity victim?

An AvWeek headline this week posed a question that once had an easy, one-word answer: No.

The question was, per David A. Fulghum and Bill Sweetman: “Are there alternatives to the F-35 program?” But in post-super committee America, where the Air Force daydreams about growing its fleet with a service-life extension program for the Wright Flyer , things aren’t as clear cut as they used to be.

Back in the old days we used to say, c’mon, there’s just too much riding on this to seriously contemplate it going away. It’s the largest defense program in history. It’s the future of fast-jet flying for three U.S. military services and a host of international clients. It’s got an economic footprint across the country. All the right people in Washington have a stake in pressing forward, even as its schedule slides and its costs creep up.

Problem is, Washington does strange things. Difficult as it was to believe the capital would trap itself in a “Guns of August” crisis of process, that is what has happened: Congressional deadlock lit a slow fuse set to burn until early 2013, when a budgetary detonation could obliterate nearly $1 trillion in planned DoD spending growth over the next 10 years. The Pentagon, having shut its eyes and plugged its ears in hopes that would banish this monster, made no plans for what to do in exactly the scenario that has materialized.

The White House doesn’t want this bomb to go off, but under the bizarre logic of the moment, it has vowed to stop Congress from blowing out the fuse, in hopes that its continued burn will motivate lawmakers to get the kind of deal they couldn’t to begin with — which set the whole thing in motion in the first place. Plus there’s a nice little sideshow this week in which the Democratic president is in a showdown with the Democratically controlled Senate over detainee provisions in the defense bill.

So in other words, things that may have once made sense now don’t. All the reasons the F-35 was guaranteed to survive may no longer apply. Secretary Panetta himself dangled the program over the hotel balcony in his warning to Senate lawmakers about what might go away under sequestration. There are no brakes on this thing. At one point, we were supposed to get a thoughtful, soup-to-nuts strategic review that would show the way toward a new defense posture for Austerity America, but nope, nothin’ yet. Maybe this lack of any clear way forward is why people keep using the word “decline.”

Strictly speaking, the answer to Fulghum and Sweetman’s question probably still is “no,” in the sense that DoD can’t just whip up another advanced fifth-generation fighter for U.S. and international militaries. There is a school of thought that it doesn’t need to — that upgraded versions of today’s F-16s and F/A-18s can do just fine for the medium term. The international clients would be screwed, especially the British and Italian navies, but the way Europe’s economy is headed these days, buying new fighter jets might be least of their worries.

If the F-35 went away, Lockheed Martin would be devastated, but it would probably survive — it makes a lot of other stuff — though tens of thousands of people would be out of work in Texas, California and many other places around the country. Many of the jets in the arsenal today might end up as static displays, guarding the gates of Air Force bases. Others would go to the boneyard. For the record, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum already has an early F-35 in its collection.

With or without the F-35, it’s difficult to imagine how the services would cope post-sequestration, because it’s hard to sift through all of this fall’s warnings and melodrama and determine what was real and what was tosh. One thing is clear, though: Although canceling the F-35 might save DoD money, it would not eliminate the Pentagon’s need for a brand-new airplane. At some point, even the newest-model Vipers and Super Hornets will wear out, and even the austerity military of tomorrow will conclude that it can’t just keep upgrading airplanes first designed in the 1970s.

Maybe by the time that happens, America will be flush again and it can afford to try to salvage the “Joint Strike Fighter” concept, or maybe it will start from scratch with a brand-new airplane. (If, aerospace industry advocates would jump in here, there are any companies around that could do the job.) Or maybe, knowing us Americans, the Pentagon and Congress of that era will repeat the exact same mistakes they made in our era and foul up another attempt at a new joint program.

Is it worth the risk to save money now? Or should DoD try to protect the F-35 no matter what, given its long-term importance?  What do you think?