The World’s Most Hated Weapons Program

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During the month of April, the world endured daily headlines about two feared rogue states’ arms programs -- that of Iran’s uranium enrichment and North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.  In the background, however, another national weapons program continued its march to historic notoriety, albeit for different reasons. American initiatives rarely merit categorization alongside North Korean and Iranian activities, but the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is increasingly the subject of international concern.  Whereas North Korean missiles and Iranian nuclear bombs are a hazard to international security, the JSF is a threat to its patron and its allies.

Nuclear Weapons Equal Regime Insurance

Iran’s nuclear program preceded the Islamist regime, but its recent lack of compliance with international treaty obligations has raised suspicions.  

In August 2002, an Iranian dissident group asserted Iran was constructing two nuclear sites.  The subsequent dispute over the protocol for notification and the permissibility of inspections culminated in successive reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2003 and 2004 describing Iran’s “pattern of concealment.”  Meanwhile, Iran has asserted its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful civilian purposes while the United States alleges Iran is pursuing weapons-grade material.

Since then, the United States and the West have engaged in, to date, inconclusive negotiations with Iran over the future of the enrichment program.  Furthermore, the United Nations has passed resolutions condemning Iran’s program and Western countries have instituted harsh economic sanctions.  Nonetheless, Iran has persisted, announcing it had begun enriching uranium in April 2007, and then in February 2010, declaring itself a “nuclear state.”

In light of the new American posture after September 11, numerous observers were convinced the United States (or Israel with American acquiescence) would launch a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

In 2009, expectations for such an attack diminished for a short period of time as incoming President Barack Obama indicated his interest in pursuing a diplomatic settlement.

In recent months, however, the matter has again reached crisis levels.

In February 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was cited as saying he believed that Israel might strike Iran in April, May, or June.  The next month, President Obama stated military means were under consideration to prevent, not just contain, a nuclear Iran.  In the same month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed the right of Israel to act in its self-defense and President Obama, in statements before and after his visit, acknowledged Israel's right of self-defense.  On March 15, ADM Jonathan Greenert, reported the U.S. had deployed counter-mine assets to the region; such assets would be critical to keeping sea lanes around the Strait of Hormuz open should war break out.

President Obama has attempted to reduce tensions by urging continued negotiations and letting sanctions take effect while GEN Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has asserted the administration considers Iran a “rational actor” that will eventually yield peacefully to pressure.

Vanity Weapons of Mass Destruction

International concerns over the North Korean nuclear weapons program first reached the crisis stage in the early 1990s.  In 1992, North Korea objected to international inspections at two nuclear facilities and then threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  After two years of extensive negotiations and brinksmanship, the United States and North Korea concluded the Agreed Framework in 1994, whereby the two countries agreed the latter would limit its nuclear program in return for the normalization of relations and international energy assistance.

In August 1998, North Korea prompted another crisis by testing the other half of its weapons program -- a nuclear weapon delivery system in the form of the Taepodong I intermediate-range ballistic missile.  The test demonstrated North Korean development of missile technology was further along than estimated.  The action prompted the United States to revisit deployment decisions for a planned missile defense system.

The nuclear weapon component re-emerged in 2002 when North Korean diplomats publicly asserted for the first time that the country possessed a nuclear device, one produced via a clandestine program operated in violation of the Agreed Framework.  Four years later, North Korea claimed it had conducted a nuclear test.  

The prospect of North Korea possessing a deliverable nuclear weapon is unsettling, but fortunately for the world, more amusing is how the country’s overall backwardness undermines even this focal point of the country’s scarce resources.  

On April 13th, North Korea attempted again to launch a three-stage rocket; the rocket reportedly broke up ninety seconds after takeoff.  As the Danger Room blog aptly summarized in its headline, “North Korea Still Sucks at Launching Rockets.”

A Greater Threat To Itself

The United States initially sought a fifth-generation aircraft capability to counter the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union fell – twenty-one years ago – the effort continued in order to recapitalize the tactical fighter force.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a comprehensive program to recapitalize the entire fleet of strike aircraft, of which the United States plans to purchase 2,353 for the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps.1  “More than just a jet,” the JSF is admittedly complex but, according to the program website, “affordability is the cornerstone of the F-35 program.”

Unfortunately, the website’s assertions have been unsupported by actual program performance.

In March 2012, an updated Department of Defense cost estimate indicated the complete life-cycle cost of the program would total more than $1.45 trillion.  Moreover, the new estimate stated the average cost of the F-35, including research and development (R&D) and inflation, would be $135 million each.  

According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office assessment, this figure represents a 78.2 percent growth from the 2001 unit cost projection of $74.6 million.  The assessment concluded bluntly, “Among the 96 programs in DOD’s 2011 portfolio, the Joint Strike Fighter is the costliest, the poorest performer in terms of cost growth, and the program with the largest remaining funding needs,” accounting for 21 percent (approximately $327 billion) of the planned total acquisition cost of the portfolio.  More pointedly, the JSF is expected to account for 38 percent (almost $246 billion) of future procurement funding.

Program advocates have asserted future costs would be minimized via commonality.  Critical to this assumption is the participation of U.S. allies:  Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, United Kingdom.

However, these partners have investigated the JSF and have also found it wanting.

  1. Australia’s annual portfolio assessment cited extended development and operational test schedules and that potential changes to software scope, development and release could threaten the aircraft’s ability to meet the country’s requirements.  In March, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced it was delaying its orders for the F-35.
  2. Canada reported its National Defence agency had committed the country to the production, sustainment, and follow-on development phase of the JSF program, but the agency did not fully inform decision makers of the implications of participation in the JSF program and, “in some cases, documented analysis did not exist.” In March, Canadian Associate Defense Minister Julian Fantino stated the program’s cost and schedule problems might lead Canada to exit completely. The next month, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper prohibited the Ministry of Defense from spending any more money on the Canadian version of the JSF.
  3. The Netherlands reported its Ministry of Defence had not received an updated estimate of the operating costs of the JSF in 2011, a year after Defence Minister Hans Hillen reported an increase in the unit cost.  In April, Minister Hillen stated the Netherlands would purchase less than the original amount of 85.
  4. The United Kingdom reported the Ministry of Defence had committed to the Marine Corps variant although the Navy variant was more capable and less costly.  While the United Kingdom switched to the Navy variant in 2011, the risk of further production delays and cost growth remained.  In April, news reports indicated the cost to accommodate the switch may become prohibitive and the United Kingdom may switch yet again.
  5. In March, Denmark announced the JSF would no longer be considered as a replacement for its F-16 fleet in light of the program’s schedule and cost problems.
  6. In February, Italy announced the number of JSF aircraft to be purchased would be reduced from 131 to 90.
  7. In April, Norway announced the country may reconsider its participation if cost uncertainties persist.
  8. In the same month, Turkey announced all future JSF aircraft orders would be reviewed on an annual basis by the country’s Defense Industry Executive Board.

When asked on April 5th about the overall health of the program and of the international partnership, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley responded “we continue to make progress on the program” and that the coalition “remains strong” and commented “[t]he Joint Program Office has a very good program for keeping joint partners up to speed and in the mix.”2

Sources of Fret and Folly

In pursuit of weapons, a nation must employ a logic aligned with its interest -- a logic sometime obvious, sometimes impenetrable.

In Iran, the logic is simple.  The current ruling clerical elite possess no legitimacy and the country is surrounded by hostile states -- acquiring a nuclear weapon is the only way to ensure the regime’s survival.

In North Korea, the logic is convoluted.  The bid to develop weapons of mass destruction seems to serve little purpose other than the megalomania of its leadership, especially in light of the deprivation its people suffer.  The constant threat posed to its neighbors and frequent crises the world must endure are lamentable, but, the regime counts on this attention in order to extract concessions from the international community.  As such, whether North Korean weapons function as designed is irrelevant, the weapons function as intended:  diplomatic leverage.

In the case of the United States, the JSF program seems to defy logic altogether.

The entire program’s projected lifetime cost now surpasses $1 trillion.  Numerous American and allied partners have evaluated the program -- repeatedly -- and have found its cost, schedule, and technical assumptions are unsound.  Moreover, the United States and its allies are amidst such dire fiscal straits that significant defense budget cutbacks and government-wide austerity programs are inevitable.  Lastly, the United States and its allies face no existential security threat meriting such an expenditure of resources.  In this last regard, the JSF, oddly enough, is an arms program even Iran and North Korea would forgo – the aircraft is hardly imperative to the country’s survival nor does it benefit the country’s diplomatic relationships.

Whatever the fate of the other two programs, the JSF is destined for equivalent infamy.


Notes

1 In April 2009, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated he would be recommending the termination of the recapitalization’s F-22 air supremacy component, which had also been plagued by enormous cost and schedule overruns.  Despite a fleet of 187 aircraft, the F-22 never flew a combat mission over Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya.

2 Expected customers include Israel, Singapore, and Japan.  However, in February, Japan’s government sent a letter to the Department of Defense warning the country would cancel its three month old order if additional delays or price increases occurred.