The F-35's History Of Costly Problems

The Joint Strike Fighter is the largest and most expensive weapons program in history. It is suppose to be a "cheap" replacement for a number of fighters flown by every U.S. military service, but it's years behind schedule and billions over budget. Host Rachel Martin talks with Adam Ciralsky, who wrote an article in Vanity Fair about the troubled history of the F-35.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the midst of all these budget battles, debt ceiling fights and the sequester that has forced the government to cut billions of dollars in programs, the Pentagon is going forward with the most expensive weapons system ever.

ADAM CIRALSKY: (Reading) It is plagued by design flaws and cost overruns. It flies only in good weather. The computers that run it lack the software they need for combat. Until recently, the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, was operating with a free hand, paid handsomely for its own mistakes. Looking back, even the general now in charge of the program can't believe how we got to this point. In sum: all systems go.

MARTIN: That's Adam Ciralsky reading from his recent Vanity Fair article about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Plane. It's a cutting-edge stealth, single-engine aircraft that can take off on a short runway or a carrier, and when needed it can land vertically, like a helicopter. In fact, the F-35 is designed to replace most of the fighters currently flown by the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The problem: the aircraft is at least seven years behind schedule and has been plagued by technical problems. I began our interview by asking Adam Ciralsky about something that sounded simple: the pilot's helmet.

CIRALSKY: Ah, the helmet. So, for years and years, the Pentagon has relied on what they call a heads-up display. Instead of looking down at your instruments while driving a car, you could be looking through your windshield and see the necessary data displayed on your windshield. That's what a heads-up display is. When it came time to build the F-35, however, Lockheed Martin and others decided to go with what they called a helmet-mounted display system, which is a more complicated version. And it would be like having all the data in your car projected right onto your eyeglasses or your sunglasses.

MARTIN: Well, wasn't there an element of this that was akin to something like X-ray vision?

CIRALSKY: Yes. When the plane was built, they decided to embed six cameras. The plane doesn't have the same kind of cockpit or cockpit visibility as, say, an F-16. So, the idea was a computer would take all the disparate camera feeds and put them right in front of the pilot's eyes. So, in effect, when you put on the helmet, you can, let's say, you're looking at your left wing. You actually see right through the wing. If you're looking at your legs, you see through the floor of the plane. It's amazing.

MARTIN: And that hasn't happened.

CIRALSKY: Well, it's happened, but there is so much data and there's so much video being displayed only inches from their eyes that it creates problems. In some cases, spatial disorientation, which is a severe problem with flight.

MARTIN: You also write about some really basic flaws with the plane. The F-35, at this point, you can't fly it in inclement weather?

CIRALSKY: That's correct. It's one of the great ironies of the plane, which - the formal name for the F-35 is the F-35 Lightning 2, and it can't fly in lightning.

MARTIN: This is said to be the most expensive weapon system ever. What's the price tag so far?

CIRALSKY: Well, when you factor in the cost of actually procuring the plane and the cost of operational and maintenance, by many estimates it runs right about $1.5 trillion.

MARTIN: What has kept the program going? I mean, presumably, the Pentagon is well aware of the cost overruns and the missed deadlines. Has there been any kind of internal effort to perhaps reevaluate the program?

CIRALSKY: If you talk to people inside the Pentagon, it's one of these things that people whisper in the corridors. They would very much like a serious, sober reevaluation. That won't happen. The reason is pretty simple. It has to do with something called political engineering. When this program as put together by Lockheed Martin, they sought out 1,400 separate contractors in 46 states. That's a heck of a lot of congressional districts. The program's essentially immune from termination.

MARTIN: Journalist Adam Ciralsky. His article on the troubled history of the F-35 appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair. Thanks so much for talking with us.

CIRALSKY: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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