The USAF’s strategy sounds better than its plans.


In Real Clear Defense, my Atlantic Council colleague Alex Ward recently endorsed the US Air Force’s concept of strategic agility as what’s needed for the service “to employ new technologies, better deal with increasingly powerful state and non-state actors, and adapt operations to new environments over the next thirty years.” In its recently published strategy, A Call to the Future, the Air Force’s leadership wrote ambitiously of how it believes that “rapid change is the new norm,” so “embracing strategic agility will enable [the USAF] to ‘jump the rails’ from… 20th-century, industrial-era processes and paradigms” (p. 8). In the future, the service will avoid “all-or-nothing outcomes and double-or-nothing budget decisions” (p. 9). Instead, in its procurements, the Air Force will aim to “lower the cost of failure… by driving timelines, cost structures, and architectures towards smaller, simpler programs” (p. 11).
That story sounds great, but in what way does it resemble the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program?

The JSF is supposed to guarantee air superiority through 2050, but if rapid change really is “the new norm”, how possibly could that be assured? The lines of its low-observability were baked in at the airplane’s critical design review, but Moore’s Law will be advancing the capabilities of signal processing for some time. Some adversary will eventually devise a way of tracking the F-35. At that point, its stealthiness will be but a modest advantage, and its other performance characteristics will become vital. We don’t expect that the Lightning II will be another F-104 Starfighter or F-4 Phantom II—widely-produced but tactically challenged machines. But if the F-35 does have a fatal flaw, we may not have the flaming evidence until after JSFs are the bulk of the American fighter fleet. The aircraft’s missiles may be long-ranged and agile, but such an overall war-fighting architecture could still prove quite fragile, if not every possible contingency has been addressed in advance.
It’s entirely possible that the JSF will prove very adaptable, as much of its offensive power is enabled by software. In this way, the aircraft may already have gotten us beyond those “industrial-era processes and paradigms”. The good news, as an Air Force contracting officer told me 20 years ago, is that upgrades now will be just software, but the bad news is that we think that they’re just software. For today, the odd engine fire aside, that massive software undertaking is what troubles most those who watch the program closely. The JSFs are flying; they’re just not doing much until all that code is finished.
So if there ever was an all-or-nothing bet in military procurement, it’s on the F-35. The leadership of the USAF and the USMC assert that they have no backup plan. Their supervisors in OSD don’t even want a backup engine. The program office might have a backup helmet. A few years ago, the Navy’s backup was to buy Super Hornets until the end of time, or until a sixth-generation-something became available, whichever came first. But even that idea has recently been squelched as lacking enthusiasm for the approved solution.
The design of the F-35 (and particularly its lift fan) might have some elegance to it, but the program is hardly, to cite Dan Ward, ‘fast, inexpensive, or restrained’. Its “timelines, cost structures, and architectures” are neither small nor simple. What’s learned from failure on the JSF program may be more useful within that program than in any other, but the salient learning so far for the American military as a whole might be let’s not ever bet the farm like that again.
As Alex Ward has fairly reminded me, annunciated strategies tell everyone what is wanted tomorrow, not what is today. As the USAF’s strategy really says nothing specific, we should speculate about the concrete possibilities. Last month in the National Interest, Rob Farley of the University of Kentucky recommended five alternatives to endlessly backing the JSF, including restarting the F-22 line, and just starting fresh with a new program. In Real Clear Defense, Dan Gouré of the Lexington Institute argued in response that “the first new F-22 couldn’t come off the line for at least ten years”, and that a sixth-generation design would take “at least twenty years”.
Really? Whether or not more F-22s would be a better choice, should we presume that Lockheed Martin and its suppliers are so inept that they couldn’t resume a build-to-print operation from existing plans within a decade? Whether or not a sixth-generation (whatever that marketing term might mean) manned fighter would be a good idea, should we really have that little faith in the American aerospace industry? Are their now 21st-century processes and plans so fragile that any deviations will lead to their destruction? The F-35 is still planned to consume just over 40 percent of all Pentagon spending on major programs after 2015, and deliveries are supposed to continue through 2037. The Air Force is talking a good game, but on this trajectory, its strategy of agility won’t for decades get the money and the managerial attention it needs to succeed.
James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.