Tomorrow, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will unveil the Pentagon’s new defense strategy. Whatever its merits, it is clear that the new strategy is driven not by substantive changes in the international security environment but by the shrinking U.S. defense budget. Whatever Panetta puts forward is meant to narrow the focus of U.S. defense activities, thereby allowing reductions in military forces to match a declining resource base.
One of the key questions is what the new strategy and associated force posture will mean for major defense acquisition programs. The expectation is the more money is involved in a program, the greater the likelihood that it will get cut. Defense budgeteers are like bank robbers: they go where the money is.
One program seemingly on every commentator’s hit list is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). At more than $350 billion over its planned production life it is the largest procurement program today. Some pundits assert, erroneously, that the U.S does not need the F-35 and it can get by with upgraded versions of the F-15, 16 and 18.
The idea of the world’s premier military having to rely for the next thirty years on fourth-generation fighters designed in the 1970s and 1980s when other nations are building fifth-generation aircraft is puzzling to say the least. Even many of those who believe the F-35 is needed propose slowing the program down, reducing the overall buy or cutting one or possibly two of the three JSF variants.
Both these positions are wrong. The F-35 program is the single most important acquisition program of the next 25 years. The JSF will ensure U.S. air dominance for the next 40 years. In addition, the short take-off/vertical landing variant, the F-35B, will allow the Marine Corps to maintain its proven Air-Ground Task Force concept and permit the Navy to employ its large deck amphibious warships as virtual mini-aircraft carriers.
Equally important, foreign sales of the F-35 will be a powerful attractive force holding together U.S. regional alliances and bilateral security relationships. In the hands of U.S. NATO allies, Japan, Australia, Israel and possibly South Korea, India and even Taiwan, the F-35 will not only help those nations ensure their security but create a set of institutional relationships involving training, maintenance and logistics that will benefit both them and the United States.
The JSF is the one program the Pentagon cannot afford to cut. Shrinking the size of the U.S. fighter fleet increases the importance of fielding the most advanced fifth-generation fighter. If anything the Pentagon needs to put more money into the F-35 program. Additional resources would go to buying back the approximately 100 F-35s that should have been procured by now on the programs original schedule, as well as to ensuring adequate testing and fixing concurrency issues.