STOVL, the F-35, and how we’re even more f’ed than David Axe suggests
On his excellent blog War is Boring, defense correspondent David Axe has posted a very good long-form piece explaining how the F-35 — the very new, very expensive, very behind schedule next-generation jet fighter that is supposed to fill the squadrons of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps over the coming decades — is actually a pretty terrible fighter, outclassed even by older Russian and Chinese designs. He worries that it’s so bad that it will get American pilots killed and American wars lost. Given how central the F-35 is to the planning of all three U.S. military aviation arms for at least the next thirty years, that’s a very valid concern.
In the piece, Axe tracks the F-35’s problems back to one primary source — the requirement by the Marine Corps that it incorporate STOVL (Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing) technology. For those who have better things to do with their lives than follow the minutiae of military technology, STOVL means a plane that can take off from a short, unprepared runway, and then land by dropping straight down, like a helicopter does.
(So if the plane can land straight down like a helicopter, I hear you thinking, why not have it take off straight up like a helicopter, too? The answer is that many STOVL planes actually can take off vertically. But doing so requires a lot more oomph from the engine, which in turn drastically limits the amount of weapons and fuel the plane can carry. A short, rolling take-off is easier on the engine, which frees up the extra power needed to bring all that stuff along.)
STOVL never caught on with the Air Force and Navy, but it became a central part of the Marines’ air doctrine when that service selected the AV-8B Harrier II “jump jet” (pictured, right) in the 1980s.
When the proposal for a “joint strike fighter” (JSF) to fill the future needs of all three services came forward in the 1990s, the Marines said that if they were going to participate they would need a version of the JSF that had the same STOVL operational profile the Harrier did. The plane that came out of the JSF program, the F-35 Lightning II, therefore was designed in three versions: a smaller, lighter F-35A for the Air Force, a STOVL F-35B for the Marines, and an F-35C for the Navy that included tweaks for flying off aircraft carriers such as foldable wing-tips and an arrester hook.
To illustrate the limitations all variants of the F-35 have compared to potential adversaries, Axe recaps a 2008 war game, called “Pacific Vision,” in which analysts from the RAND Corporation simulated a war between the U.S. and China over the disputed territory of Taiwan. The results were not pretty:
America’s newest stealth warplane and the planned mainstay of the future Air Force and the air arms of the Navy and Marine Corps, was no match for Chinese warplanes. Despite their vaunted ability to evade detection by radar, the JSFs were blown out of the sky. “The F-35 is double-inferior,” Stillion and Perdue moaned in their written summary of the war game, later leaked to the press.
The analysts railed against the new plane, which to be fair played only a small role in the overall simulation. “Inferior acceleration, inferior climb [rate], inferior sustained turn capability,” they wrote. “Also has lower top speed. Can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” Once missiles and guns had been fired and avoiding detection was no longer an option — in all but the first few seconds of combat, in other words — the F-35 was unable to keep pace with rival planes.
And partly as a result, the U.S. lost the simulated war. Hundreds of computer-code American air crew perished. Taiwan fell to the 1s and 0s representing Chinese troops in Stillion and Perdue’s virtual world. Nearly a century of American air superiority ended among the wreckage of simulated warplanes, scattered across the Pacific.
So why did the F-35 perform so badly in that simulation? Axe traces the plane’s flaws back to a single main cause — the Marines’ insistence on a STOVL variant:
Engineering compromises forced on the F-35 by this unprecedented need for versatility have taken their toll on the new jet’s performance. Largely because of the wide vertical-takeoff fan the Marines demanded, the JSF is wide, heavy and has high drag, and is neither as quick as an F-16 nor as toughly constructed as an A-10. The jack-of-all-trades JSF has become the master of none.
And since the F-35 was purposely set up as a monopoly, replacing almost every other warplane in the Pentagon’s inventory, there are fewer and fewer true alternatives. In winning the 2001 competition to build the multipurpose JSF, Lockheed set a course to eventually becoming America’s sole active builder of new-generation jet fighters, leaving competitors such as Boeing pushing older warplane designs.
Which means that arguably the worst new jet fighter in the world, which one Australian military analyst-turned-politician claimed would be “clubbed like baby seals” in combat, could soon also be America’s only new jet fighter.
I think Axe is correct that the need to support STOVL forced engineering constraints on the designers of the F-35 that ended up limiting the performance of all three variants in bad ways. But I don’t think that “STOVL is bad” is necessarily the right moral to take away from the F-35 story, as he suggests. I think the real moral is much worse. It’s that American military doctrine in general, not just the F-35, is disconnected in fundamental ways from reality; and that that disconnect, if tested in a future war, will result in far more unnecessary casualties than just the pilots in the F-35 cockpits.
Why STOVL exists
But first, a brief digression to explain why STOVL, as a technology, exists at all.
In the olden days of flying, from the Wright Brothers up until mid-World War II, fighter planes were small, rugged craft. They were light enough and slow enough that they could take off and land from pretty much anywhere with reasonably flat terrain. World War I “aerodromes” were frequently just big, open grass fields. Even as late as the Battle of Britain, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes were taking off to fight the Luftwaffe from grass airstrips.
The rush of aviation technology spurred by World War II — jet engines, air-to-air missiles, onboard radar sets — made fighters much deadlier than those older planes had ever been. But it also made them bigger and heavier; so heavy, in fact, that they could no longer safely take off and land from a farmer’s field. Supporting all that weight, and all the extra thrust that jet engines provided, required providing them with long, concrete airstrips. And as the decades wore on, the planes got even bigger, so the airstrips had to get even longer.
All of which began to make British defense planners a bit uneasy. Britain is one of the few nations in the world to have ever had a direct attack launched on its air-defense infrastructure, so they were sensitive to the idea that a chink in that armor could have catastrophic consequences in a future war. And some thinkers there began to worry that those long, concrete runways were just such a chink.
The thing about long concrete runways, of course, is that you can’t really move them around. Once you lay one down somewhere, it stays there. And in an age of satellite “eyes in the sky,” it’s difficult to prevent the other side from knowing where they are. Long airstrips clustered with supporting structures are easy to spot from above, as a cursory glance at Google Maps’ satellite view will attest.
So, as the Cold War deepened, those British defense planners started to worry about just how secure those beautiful runways really were. We should probably assume the Russians know where they all are, went the thinking, since they’re sort of obvious. And if they know where they all are, should we not assume that they would hit them all hard on the first morning of World War III?
If the Russians really were going to try to surge across the German frontier and seize Western Europe, in other words, NATO air power was supposed to be there to stop them. But the Russians knew that as well as NATO did. And if that air power was all shackled to a few locations known to the enemy, it would be a lot easier for the enemy to destroy all those planes on the ground by bombing the air bases than it would to try and shoot them down once they’d gotten airborne. It would only take a single tactical nuclear weapon to turn the runway and every plane parked around it to radioactive dust. And since the Soviets had plenty of tactical nuclear weapons, it was possible to imagine World War III starting with a devastating Pearl Harbor-style opening attack on NATO airfields across Western Europe. Even if the attack wasn’t 100% successful — even if it only destroyed, say, 50% of NATO’s air strength — it could still do more than enough damage to give the Soviets control of the skies over the battlefield. And since NATO’s defense strategy depended so much on air power, if that happened the war would be lost before it had even really begun.
This line of thinking led the British to start wondering about whether a jet fighter could be produced that could avoid being shackled to those dangerously seductive runways. If such a fighter existed, it would offer a way out of this strategic dilemma; when war appeared imminent, those squadrons using it could disperse from their airfields and operate, Spitfire-style, from green fields and stretches of highway. They could dodge the hammer that would fall on every other NATO aircraft in those opening hours of war.
So they went to work to see if such a fighter could be built, and the result was the Hawker Siddeley Harrier.
Judged as a fighter, the Harrier was unimpressive. Just about any other contemporary fighter could fly farther, or faster, or turn more nimbly, or carry more weapons. But that was because its designers had sacrificed on all those other elements to give it its one trump card — STOVL. It could operate from short, unprepared runways, which set it free from those long concrete airstrips. So when other NATO nations sniffed at the Harrier as overweight and underperforming, the British would just reply that all those other fighters may be better, but if the Soviets ever attacked they would also be quickly transformed into junk. The Harrier would survive, and the British figured that an unimpressive fighter that can fly and fight beats an impressive one that’s a flaming wreck on a nuked runway. (Which is kind of hard to argue with, when you think about it.)
Why STOVL appeals to the Marines
As noted above, the Harrier eventually found its way into the air arm of the U.S. Marine Corps. Unlike the Air Force, the Marines did not expect to be fighting in Western Europe in World War III; that was the Army’s job, not theirs. So the vulnerability of those long runways to Russian nukes didn’t concern them much.
But that didn’t mean that they weren’t concerned about the need for those long runways at all. For their entire modern history, the Marines have been what is referred to as an “expeditionary” force. In civilian terms, what that means is: when an unexpected conflict in some remote corner of the world pops up, the ones who get sent to deal with it are Marines. So if you’re a Marine, one of the few things you can say for certain about the challenges you’ll be called upon to face is that you won’t have a lot of infrastructure set up in the place where you have to face them. You’re going to land on a beach or be dropped in by helicopter somewhere far from any base, and you’ll have to fight there with whatever you can carry with you.
Given all that, the restriction that being tied to fixed runways causes becomes obvious. It’s like the scene at the end of Back to the Future where Marty tells Doc Brown there’s not enough space on the road for them to get their DeLorean time machine up to 88 miles per hour, and Doc responds “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” Where the Marines go, they had better not need runways, because there probably aren’t going to be runways there waiting for them.
In theory, this isn’t a huge limitation, because the Navy is supposed to be there to support them with planes from its aircraft carriers, which are essentially long concrete runways that just also happen to float. But, as Axe notes, in real shooting wars there are no guarantees that the Navy will be able to be there. The Marines who fought the Japanese on Guadalcanal in 1942 had to watch as the Japanese navy drove the Navy’s carriers away from that island. For weeks, the only air support they had came from Marine aviators flying from an uncompleted airstrip they had captured from the Japanese.
What do you suppose the odds are that future enemies will be so thoughtful as to leave us an airstrip to use against them? Are they odds you would want to bet your life on?
STOVL offered the Marines a way out of having to rely on the Navy’s flattops. STOVL planes could operate from the same amphibious assault ships that would carry the Marines’ troops and helicopters into battle. And once the landing forces had lodged themselves on the enemy’s turf, the planes could decamp from the ship to the shore and fly from rough strips there.
This is one of the few points on which I think Axe’s otherwise excellent article errs. It chalks up the Corps’ desire for STOVL capability entirely to bureaucratic infighting — to a desire by the Marines to remove themselves from having to depend on the Navy. I don’t doubt that this is a part of their motivation; inter-service rivalries in the U.S. military can be pretty ferocious, especially the farther away you get from an actual fighting front. But it’s not hard for me to understand, in theory anyway, why the Marines could have very legitimate war-fighting reasons both for having their air arm be able to operate independently of fixed airfields and for thinking that maybe it would be good for them to have an ace up their sleeve in case the Navy’s flattops ever get driven away from them again.
The F-35: definitely F’ed
So now, having detoured through a history of how STOVL came to be and why the Marines were attracted to it, can we say that the concern about the F-35 is overstated?
No. Oh, no. If anything, it is understated. The F-35 program is a gigantic, history-making mess. The cost of the program has ballooned by at least 70 percent since it began in 2001. Its development has been plagued with technical problems. When the plane had trouble meeting its performance targets, the Pentagon responded by lowering the targets. And at some point Chinese hackers managed to compromise the project’s computer systems, stealing an unknown number of the plane’s secrets.
There’s lots of reasons why the program is in the sorry state it’s in. One is “concurrency.” To avoid getting too far into the project-management weeds, what this means is that, in order to get F-35s delivered to the customers as soon as possible, the makers of the plane, Lockheed-Martin, started the F-35 production line rolling at the same time as they were flight-testing the F-35, rather than after. LockMart’s assumption was that computer models of the plane’s performance would shake out any serious defects long before actual flight tests took place, leaving only smaller issues like software bugs whose fixes could be rolled out to the fleet later. To put it mildly, this turned out not to be the case. Most Defense Department projects use some degree of concurrency, but the F-35 program’s heavy dependence on it was described last year by now-Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall as “acquisition malpractice.”
Another is that the project has become too big to fail. The F-35 is expected to play a key role across all three U.S. military aviation arms. Additionally, it’s slated to be picked up by many U.S. allies as well, such as the U.K., Australia, Canada, and Turkey. In other words, there are so many air forces who have bet their future on the F-35 that a cancellation would be a global disaster. There’s no alternative, no fallback, no Plan B; the F-35 has to come in, because if it doesn’t, all those air forces are going to have nothing to replace their aging current fighters with. That creates a huge amount of pressure whenever the program hits a speed bump to react by simply removing the bump. If it’s too expensive, allocate more money; if it misses performance targets, lower the targets. It doesn’t matter if the plane that comes out the other end of the pipeline is any good, all that matters is that it have “F-35” written on it, because the one thing that matters above all else is that something called “F-35” be delivered.
The biggest problem with the F-35, though, is the sports car/dump truck problem. The meaning of this is simple: if you set out to design a car to be a really good sports car, you’re going to be designing something that would make a really terrible dump truck. Conversely, an excellent dump truck is designed in ways that would make it a terrible sports car. But periodically some genius decides that he could save money by buying a single vehicle that can serve in both roles — a sports-car-slash-dump truck. And what results is always a vehicle that is both a terrible sports car and a terrible dump truck.
This is where the criticism of the F-35’s STOVL features makes sense. The Air Force, Navy, and Marines all need a fighter aircraft, but the specifics of what each service needs are actually pretty divergent. Trying to meet them all with a single airframe results in a design that does lots of things, but all of them poorly. Making an airframe that can accommodate a heavier, more complex STOVL engine means the plane is not as light or as fast as it could be without it. If you’re the Marines, STOVL is important enough that you maybe don’t care about that, but if you’re the Air Force or Navy, you most certainly do. But there’s nothing you can do about it, because you’re all tied to the same airframe.
This problem of the defense acquisitions system turning out weapons that put checking off bureaucratic checkboxes above being as effective as possible on the battlefield is an old one. It’s been plaguing the U.S. defense establishment for decades. The most notorious example is probably the F-111 Aardvark, another aircraft that was supposed to be a money-saving “tri-service” fighter. The compromises required to tick off all the checkboxes on everybody’s lists resulted in a plane that was too big and heavy to be a good fighter, too slow and under-armed to be a good bomber, and too complicated and unreliable to really be a good anything. In the end only the Air Force bought it, and even they never really figured out how to make it do anything useful.
Another example, the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, was spoofed by HBO in their very funny 1998 satire of Defense Department dysfunction, The Pentagon Wars. (Which was based on a more serious book.) In one darkly hilarious scene, the film’s protagonist, Air Force Colonel James Burton, who has been assigned to the Bradley program, tries to figure out how it ended up being “a troop transport that can’t carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that’s too conspicuous to do reconnaissance, and a quasi-tank that has less armor than a snow-blower but has enough ammo to take out half of D.C.” It then walks through all the compromises that turned the Bradley into a canonical sports-car-slash-dump-truck.
In trying to make the F-35 meet the highly divergent needs of three different services, the Defense Department and Lockheed-Martin have turned it into the classic 21st century example of the sports-car-slash-dump-truck. So yeah, it’s pretty f’ed.
But wait, it gets worse
But here’s the thing — the exercise that Axe referred to, the one that demonstrated the super-new, super-whizzy, super-expensive F-35’s inferiority against older Chinese and Russian designs, actually demonstrated a lot more than just that. It demonstrated that the problems our military has go way, way beyond the F-35.
The scenario in the exercise was straightforward: the Chinese lunge across the Taiwan Strait to try and occupy Taiwan, which they have considered part of their territory ever since the ousted government of Chiang Kai-Shek fled there in 1949. The United States, which has pledged to defend the independence of Taiwan, moves to stop them. The result is a battle between U.S. and Chinese forces in and around the Chinese coast. In the exercise, the Chinese won.
The official line on Pacific Vision was that it was a valuable learning experience. A RAND Corporation report on the exercise eventually leaked, however, and it painted a grimmer picture. It described Pacific Vision as highlighting deep, fundamental problems with U.S. military strategy in the Pacific — problems that would take a huge effort to fix. The F-35’s poor performance was one of these problems. But there were plenty of others.
Basing. One of the fundamental rules of air warfare is that an aircraft based near the battle zone is more effective than one based far away, since that plane can join the battle faster and stay in the battle longer (since it burns less fuel flying there and back). The problem in the Taiwan Straits scenario, the report points out, is that the U.S. has exactly one air base within 500 nautical miles of the strait — Kadena Air Base, on the Japanese island of Okinawa. There are other air bases in the region (in Korea, northern Japan, and Guam), but they all range from 800 to 1500 nautical miles away. The Chinese, the report points out, have 27 bases within 500 nautical miles of the strait. This would give the Chinese a huge advantage in terms of being able to “get there first with the most,” as Nathan Bedford Forrest put it.
Base survivability. Remember the fear we talked about that led to the original development of STOVL aircraft? The British fear that planes tied to a fixed runway could be neutralized by taking out that runway? The RAND report cites Kadena — remember, our only airfield in the immediate vicinity of the battle zone — as being particularly open to such an attack. Its fuel storage areas and runways are out in the open, making them vulnerable to attacks from the air and from missiles. The report claims that 34 missiles armed with “submunitions” — little bomblets that scatter all over the target, blowing holes everywhere — could completely cover all the areas at Kadena where planes are parked. It estimates that such an attack could “damage, destroy or strand” 75 percent of the aircraft based there. The Chinese, in contrast, have “hardened” their airfields to make them resistant to just such an attack, moving fuel supplies and even runways underground.
Technology failures. The American strategy for air superiority, not just with the F-35 but also with the F-22 and other modern aircraft, is based on two fundamental technologies. The first is “stealth“: using technology to help our planes to evade detection by radar. The second is “BVR”: using long-range missiles to shoot down enemy planes before the pilot can ever even see them. (The acronym stands for “beyond visual range.“) These technologies are the key to the plan for how a smaller, more high-tech force like ours can defeat a more numerous but lower-tech one like China’s.
The problem the report highlights is that one of these technologies, stealth, has never been tested in a serious battle, and the other, BVR, has historically under-performed. Air theorists have been saying that long-range BVR missiles had made dogfights obsolete since the 1950s; the Air Force and Navy that went into Vietnam were organized around this principle, and the results were disastrous. American fighter pilots discovered that their missiles, which had been designed to shoot down slow, lumbering bombers, could not keep up with the rapid maneuvers of the smaller, nimbler Soviet fighter planes flown by the North Vietnamese. Because of this, missile kills were few and far between; eventually the Air Force, which had bet most heavily on missiles, backtracked and added guns back to their fighters as a secondary weapon, and the Navy established the famous “Top Gun” school to teach their pilots how to dogfight at close range — a skill that had been lost in all the emphasis on training with missiles.
Today our modern fighters have a new generation of BVR missiles that are supposed to be much more capable and accurate than those of the Vietnam era turned out to be. But, the report points out, we don’t have a lot of data from real battles to tell us whether that’s actually true or not. And, it also emphasizes, it’s not like the other side has been standing still all this time either; our missiles may be better, but techniques and technologies for avoiding missiles have gotten better too. (Avoiding missiles is a big part of what stealth is about — and the Chinese have already started rolling out their own stealthy fighters.) So it’s entirely possible that we could discover in the same way as the generals and admirals did in Vietnam that our faith in the missile has been misplaced.
Numbers. This is the big one.
The fundamental challenge the United States would face in a battle of any kind with the Chinese would be that the Chinese massively outnumber us. This is as true in the air as it is on the ground. If Kadena is operational, the report estimates that Chinese fighters in a Taiwan Strait battle would “only” outnumber ours by three to one. If Kadena is knocked out, the ratio goes to ten to one. That’s ten enemy fighters for every one of ours, which are not great odds.
Of course, being outnumbered is not a new problem for U.S. forces; back in the Cold War era, the Russians were always projected to outnumber us too. And the standard American response in both cases has been to neutralize the enemy’s numerical advantage by using advanced technology to make our forces much more effective than the other side’s.
The problem, the report points out, is that there’s not a lot of historical evidence that such a strategy actually works. The Germans, for example, used it in World War II. Outnumbered by Allied aircraft in the latter half of the war, they responded by building wunderwaffen — super-high-tech “wonder weapon” planes that were radically faster, better-armed, and more maneuverable than anything the Allies had. The best-known of these is the Me 262, the world’s first-ever jet-powered fighter, which could fly rings around anything else in the air. The Germans put their best, most accomplished pilots in the cockpits of these superfighters, with the plan being that the combination of the two would overcome their numerical disadvantage by allowing them to swat enemy fighters down like gnats.
It didn’t work out that way. The appearance of the Me 262 gave a shock to the Allies, and at first the German wonder weapon seemed unconquerable. But Allied pilots quickly developed techniques for dealing with it. For example, they learned that while the Me 262 was quite maneuverable in an air battle, when the time came to return home it needed to take a long, straight path in order to land safely; so they just concentrated on avoiding the fight until the Germans ran out of fuel, and then picked them off on their way home.
The bigger problem with the Me 262, however, was more fundamental: all that high technology ended up making it hard to manufacture and delicate in operation. This meant that only around 1,400 of the planes were manufactured before the end of the war, and of those, only around 200 were ever combat-worthy at any given time. Compare this to the premier American fighter of the time, the North American P-51 Mustang, of which more than 15,000 were produced during the war. And that’s only one model of Allied fighter! Against those numbers, it doesn’t matter if the average Me 262 could shoot down two, or three, or five, or even ten Allied fighters before being shot down itself; there were just too many of them for even its formidable technological edges to overcome.
So there’s a point where technology, by itself, cannot save you. Surveying historical examples, the RAND report puts that point at 3:1. According to its numbers, the U.S. could face a disparity that low, but only if everything else in the battle breaks our way: if Kadena doesn’t get bombed to hell, if our stealth works and theirs doesn’t, if our BVR missiles work and theirs don’t. If, if, if. Take away even one of those assumptions and the odds start to look pretty bad. Take away two or more and they get downright dire.
Before you panic too much about the above, there are some factors that the report doesn’t really go into that could mitigate some of these issues.
Carriers. The report doesn’t really talk much about airplanes based on Navy carriers and Marine assault ships backing up the Air Force in the Taiwan Straits scenario. Having a strong force of carriers there could reduce the damage a strike on Kadena would make, since they could sail up close to the battle zone and become alternate airfields close to the battle zone. (For their planes, at least; Air Force planes aren’t equipped to fly off of carriers.) And they could help close the numerical disadvantage somewhat.
Of course, there are questions about how survivable carriers would be in a modern shooting war as well, especially against China, which has recognized the strength of America’s carrier force and started building weapons specifically to destroy it. But that’s outside the scope of this discussion.
Nukes. The United States has long maintained the Taiwan Strait as one of the few territorial boundaries that it is clearly willing to use nuclear weapons to defend. Some argue that this makes discussions of conventional battles around Taiwan moot; if China launched one, it would escalate to a nuclear confrontation, and that should be enough to dissuade them from doing so.
Of course, this only works if the Chinese believe we’re sincere in this commitment, and not bluffing. And of course, they have nukes of their own. So they might be bold enough to call us on our commitment and see if we’re willing to lose, say, Los Angeles to save Taiwan. But nuclear gamesmanship is a subject entire books have been written about, so again it’s outside the scope of this discussion.
Drones. This whole discussion has been about manned aircraft, but manned aircraft (to be blunt) are on the way out. Unmanned drones can in theory perform the same missions a manned fighter can, but without putting a pilot’s life at risk. In some ways they can even do those missions better than a manned fighter can; the maneuverability of manned fighters, for instance, is currently limited far beyond what modern planes are actually capable of, simply because going beyond those limits would put too much stress on the pilot’s body and brain. Taking the pilot out of the cockpit would free up the vehicle to race and turn as radically as its airframe and engines allow.
Of course, we’re still in early days in terms of drone development, so it’ll probably be at least twenty years or so before we see drones that are seriously designed to replace manned fighters. And of course, the Air Force and Navy have huge investments (both fiscal and psychological) in manned aircraft, and the leaders of their aviation arms all came up flying manned aircraft, so it’s possible that even if a drone would objectively be better for a mission they’d resist it for personal/sentimental reasons, the way the battleship admirals resisted the rise of the aircraft carrier or the bomber generals resisted the ballistic missile. This could put us at a distinct disadvantage against an opponent who’s less bound by tradition than we are.
Assumptions. The report looks at all the ways our assumptions about how a war would go could be overturned. But there’s lots of ways assumptions on the other side could prove wrong, too. Maybe the average soldier or sailor in the Chinese military turns out to not be as enthusiastic about being in the front line of a world war over Taiwan as the party leaders in Beijing are about starting one. Maybe their weapons or tactics turn out to be unreliable or fundamentally flawed. Maybe there’s other factors outside of air power (an inability to build enough landing ships to survive the fight and get enough troops across the strait, for instance) that would make them hesitant to try something, even if they were 100% confident they could defeat us in the air.
Of course, basing your plan for victory on the idea that everything is going to break in your direction and against your opponent is a great way to lose a war. Ideally you want to be in a position where you can win even if the breaks aren’t running your way, because from a statistical perspective it’s quite unlikely that they all will.
The F-35 is an extremely troubled program. But its troubles are just the tip of the iceberg. Our main doctrinal theory — that we can overcome great numbers with greater technology — is leading us to build a smaller and smaller number of more and more advanced fighters. But as those fighters get more advanced, they get more complicated to make, and to maintain in the field; and it’s not entirely clear whether their technology, advanced as it is, would be enough to overcome the numbers an opponent like China could field against us.
More worryingly, the F-35 isn’t a weapon that stands completely independently; it’s part of an integrated system of weapons and technologies. And there’s lots of other links in that chain that demonstrate a risk of failing under the pressure of war. It’s not clear that our military plans are resilient enough to absorb and overcome such failures.
In other words, the institutional rot and lethargy that the F-35 program suffers from has spread farther and more deeply than most people probably think. If we want to maintain our national security, we need to get serious about it, and attack it at its roots by reforming the system so that it focuses on what it’s supposed to focus on — fighting and winning wars, with the minimum possible loss of American life — rather than on maximizing defense contractors’ profits and moving career officers smoothly up the promotion chain.