The new Trump administration continues to surprise, with General James Mattis – recently confirmed as Defense Secretary – ordering a review of both the F-35 program, as well as the program for the replacement of Airforce One (the US President’s own transport jet).
The F-35 is supposedly the most expensive program in the US air force’s history. It has also been one of the most protracted and controversial, with many questioning the F-35’s capabilities as an effective combat aircraft.
Without engaging in detail in this discussion – which since I am neither an airforce pilot nor an engineer I am not qualified to do – I would merely say that I suspect that many of the F-35’s problems are the result of it being asked to carry out too many different roles, with one major error being the decision to design one variant of the aircraft with a vertical takeoff capability, something which must have added greatly to the complexity of the design and to its cost.
As I recently wrote there is an influential body of thought within the US aviation community which believes that a far more cost effective solution for the US airforce’s needs – and one which would have provided the airforce with a more capable aircraft – would have been to do what the Russians have done with the MiG-29, which is take the existing F-18 and develop it into a much more advanced and capable aircraft.
It seems that General Mattis – like President Trump – may be of this view since his call for a review of the F-35 program apparently calls for a comparison of the F-35 with a modernised F-18.
Whether the US really is prepared to drop the F-35 after such a gigantic commitment of resources remains to be seen. The wording of the US Defence Department’s announcement of the review is so obscure and ambiguous as to be all but meaningless
Mattis Orders Program Reviews
Earlier in the day, Mattis directed reviews of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and the Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization program. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the purpose of the reviews is “to inform programmatic and budgetary decisions, recognizing the critical importance of each of these acquisition programs.”
He called it a prudent step in anticipation of the budget process, which will help inform the secretary’s recommendations to the president regarding critical military capabilities.
“This action is also consistent with the president’s guidance to provide the strongest and most efficient military possible for our nation’s defense,” Davis said, “and it aligns with the secretary’s priority to increase military readiness while gaining full value from every taxpayer dollar spent on defense.”
This could equally mean that General Mattis is considering dropping an overly expensive and complex aircraft for a cheaper and more effective one, or that the F-35’s manufacturers are being asked to lower their costs.
If a decision is made to drop the F-35 then it is guaranteed to cause fury – and alarm – across the US’s military industrial complex. It will also be a shock to the British whose two big aircraft carriers are being built around the aircraft.
It will however also show that this is a President and an administration who will not let themselves be pushed around by special interest groups, however mighty they might be.
Having said this, whether Trump and Mattis really are willing, or indeed able, to take on such a large host of enemies on such an issue remains to be seen. The ambiguous wording of the Department of Defence statement suggests not.