A fully certified expert on warplanes and their weapons who has filled top Pentagon jobs in both Democratic and Republican administrations would order the Air Force and Navy to modernize their shrinking and aging air arms with F-16 fighter bombers and F-18 Es and Fs, respectively, rather than spend additional millions on trying to fix the trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
But Thomas Christie, whose last Pentagon job was director of weapons testing and evaluation for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told me in recommending cancellation of the F-35 that "it's not going to happen" even though it should.
The kind of politics that wastes taxpayers' dollars will win out, Christie predicted in a voice of resignation, if not disgust. He said government leaders will keep the F-35 JSF alive no matter how sick it gets so they will have something to show for all the money they spent on it. The JSF could end up costing the taxpayers as much as $329 billion for 2,443 planes for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Christie's analyzing of warplanes and their weapons dates back to 1955, when he worked as a civilian for the Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He said the Air Force and Navy fleets of airplanes have become dangerously small and old with no quick fixes in sight except buying planes like the F-16 and latest F-18 already in production. They are over the growing pains now plaguing and delaying the F-35. [corrected from original]
Christie contended the ailments afflicting old planes the Air Force and Navy keep flying beyond their normal retirement age pose a bigger threat to the lives of American pilots than the foreign planes in any hostile air force.
Is the Pentagon asking too much of the F-35, thus explaining some of its delay and cost overruns? Some aeronautical experts have long argued that more smarts should be built into a warplane's weapons and less in the plane itself.
A combat pilot can yank and bank his fighter bomber so hard the gravitational forces knock him unconscious. A missile is bloodless and therefore does not lose consciousness as it yanks and banks on the way to the target.
Looking at the warplanes the United States has sent against the bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan and will need for the expanding global war against terrorists, Christie sees a worrisome gap.
He argues the United States needs more planes that can fly low and slow like the A-10, which also armors the pilot against rifle bullets. "It's all-important to see and identify the target before you launch your weapons," he said. The pilot of a jet flying high and fast over a mountain in Afghanistan might think he sees Taliban hiding behind rocks and launch his bombs, only to learn he killed civilians.
Christie's recommendation to the Air Force is to look for A-10s in its bone yards that still have combat life left in them and send them to Afghanistan to support Green Berets and other stealthy units hunting the Taliban. He added it's past time for the Pentagon to design and buy a modern version of the A-10.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, U.S. field commander in Afghanistan, has insisted that pilots make sure before dropping their bombs that the suspected Taliban are not Afghan civilians. When I went to Hanoi after the Vietnam War had ended, I learned first hand that blinding airplane speed can indeed be blinding. North Vietnamese army veterans told me that all they had to do to hide from American jets patrolling the Ho Chi Minh trail was to hold thick branches above their heads and stop moving.
Largely because of its complicated software and computerized gadgetry, the estimated price tag for one JSF has jumped from $50.2 million in 2002 dollars to $80 million to $95 million in 2002 dollars.
Christine Fox, director of Pentagon cost assessments, gave those estimates to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11. The GAO told the committee "there's still significant risk on the program," noting the Pentagon still intends to buy 300 JSFs off the Lockheed Martin production line before development tests designed to detect flaws are completed.
Christie would plain give up on the short takeoff and vertical landing version of the F-35 the Marines so dearly want. Too complicated, too expensive in his opinion. Order the Marines to use the Air Force version of the F-35 and save millions of dollars and months, if not years, of delays is Christie's recommendation. This from a man who knows warplanes better than anyone on Defense Secretary Gates' team.
As one who reported in the 1960s on former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's failure to build the same basic airplane for three services and sell it to many foreign countries as well, the TFX, or tactical fighter experimental, I see the same kind of trouble ahead for the JSF.
If the Pentagon and Congress insist taxpayers buy the JSF despite its problems, why put hundreds of JSFs into production before the development models have been thoroughly tested? Even Ashton Carter, Pentagon procurement czar, has testified that "the level of concurrency" -- finding the flaws in aircraft test models at the same time you are producing uncorrected ones -- "is unprecedented." What's the rush?
This article appears in the March 27, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.