A controversy in the U.S. national security establishment threatens to damage American air power now and into the immediate future. It also is having an impact on a U.S. NATO ally.
To recap: The aircraft has major issues with reliability and that makes the service life of the airplane considerably below first reports. For example, the U.S. Marines bought the F-35B variant. It was advertised to have an 8,000-hour service life. Realistically it now appears that it will be closer to 2,100 or lower.
Maintenance? The goal of hitting 80 percent of field metrics standards is not being met. Known cyber issues with the plane remain unresolved. There are myriad other problems both large and small with the F-35.
The problems are so prevalent and pronounced that the Polish Ministry of Defense late last month opted out of the F-35 program entirely.
A ministry spokesman told Defence24.com, “Proposals that we have received have not been adequately meeting the Polish requirements, furthermore they did not satisfy Poland considering the cost-effect ratio.”
For Poland, a close American ally and a NATO member, to turn down this U.S. aircraft reflects badly on the F-35 program as a whole.
But the wider issue is the downgrade to NATO interoperability as a whole.
When different nations within the alliance use various weapons platforms not coordinated with each other it can lead to massive issues with communications, control, and supply.
An example is the NATO round. The bullet is a 7.62x51mm rimless bottlenecked rifle cartridge that was developed in the 1950s for use in the small arms of all NATO nations. Its supply and use make ammo production and resupply standard among NATO countries and thus speeds its use on the battlefield if ever needed. The same was true of vast quantities of NATO equipment and aircraft during the Cold War.
The Poles pulling out of the F-35 takes that precedent and turns it on its head thus making battlefield integration of air assets and operations that much more difficult. Poland must have had very good reasons for its decision, as the nation historically sits between two powerful and antagonistic countries, Germany and Russia. Poland likely has not forgotten, nor have other states in the region, that World War II in Europe officially started over Poland.
So to separate itself from its allies in this vital regard, especially with Putin’s Russia doing everything it can to increase its power in the area, cannot have been an easy decision. Such are the problems with the F-35 that Poland was left with no reasonable alternative.
The latest twist to this saga could happen early next week, as rumors fly in D.C. and the Pentagon that other NATO Eastern European members such as the Czech Republic, Romania, and perhaps even the Germans will follow suit and drop out of the F-35 program.
If that happens, it would leave the alliance at a major impasse just when it needs it least, as tensions with Russia have not subsided and the Middle East is heating up.
It also presents a major challenge to the U.S. Congress: Should it continue to fund the F-35 program to the tunes of billions a year or put its money in an upgrade to the currently much more reliable F-15X program?
The F-15 Eagle has been a mainstay of American and NATO defense for decades. With a new avionics suite and with recent improvements to communications, weapons, and airframe systems it likely can handle the job until the F-35 comes up to snuff.
This is where D.C. funding games come into play. The F-35 has powerful allies on Capitol Hill. That’s because, as is common practice, production for the aircraft was placed in the districts of influential members of congress. The U.S. Air Force hierarchy are the sort of military brass who rarely meet a shiny new system they don’t like. So they are also committed to the F-35 as they see the fighter as its future.
That may be true . . . in the future.
Right now the F-35 is riddled with enough defects to make it the wrong choice to quarterback our air fleet. If the United States Air Force does use it as such then our air crews across the globe could pay a very high price for that very risky decision.