As beltway tussles go, defense procurement tends to be more wonky and less spicy than the latest Trump or AOC tweet. However, the ongoing discussion regarding the Pentagon procurement of fighter aircraft, specifically the F-15X versus the F-35, deals with billions of dollars and thousands of jobs which translates into real money and political implications. It is a false choice because our military deserves to have both tools in the toolbox of fighter jets to combat emerging and shifting threats.
A recent article in the National Interest hinted that Russia would love for the Pentagon to procure F-15s, because it’s most advanced air defense system, the S-400, could supposedly spot and track the older aircraft at ten times the distance of the more stealthy F-35. That may be so. But first off, we must consider the following; these can only be considered estimates, because the more advanced capabilities of both the F-35 and the S-400 remain classified. Secondly, to make such a huge procurement decision based on a single metric does not take into account the myriad additional factors that come into play during a conflict.
Just like some can say that the Russians are rooting for more F-15s, terrorist organizations are rooting for expensive defense spending like the F-35 to bankrupt America. The strategy the bad guys are using is not to beat us in a conventional war, but to use tactics of terror that strike fear into the people that motivate the government to spend more and more on defense that may not make us safer.
Not all missions are the same. Not all adversaries are the same. If the opponent does not have S-400s then they can’t defend against F-15s. The topography of the target comes into play and may make the F-15 a better choice. A surgical strike versus a single target set or force-on-force in a more conventional environment dictate different strategy and a variety of tools. Not all conflicts are one dimensional and diversity in the Air Force fighter jets makes sense.
As I’ve previously written, I don’t doubt the efficacy of the F-35, as the ones that are actually flying are impressive, but diversity seems prudent. One of the main reasons why the F-15X is, and should remain, a vital compliment to the F-35 is that the F-35 seems to be one of those platforms similar to nuclear fusion; it’s 10 years away–and always will be. It’s the most expensive weapons program in US history and is way over budget and behind schedule.
Air Force Magazine has produced a decent “tale-of-the-tape” between the two platforms, but unfortunately, any “projections” made must be taken with a grain of salt, given how wildly off-target previous projections of cost, the timeline, and capability of the F-35 were marketed. That said, it’s more important to focus on the larger-scale implications of putting all our eggs in one basket. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Using an F-35 to destroy a set of tunnels or a couple of terrorists in a beat-up Volvo is just as economically illiterate as using a howitzer on a purse snatcher. It’s why drones evolved within the battlespace.
Terrorist organizations could possibly be rooting for the F-35, one of the invisible smite-bringers in the sky that ended many a terrorist’s existence, because the cost will bankrupt the U.S. government. Bin Laden told us this was his strategy years ago and the same one he and his Afghan mujahedeen used against the Soviets in the 80s while our intelligence agencies trained him how to do it. Bin Laden bragged that 9/11 cost about $500,000 to conduct, but the response it elicited from us has been in the trillions of dollars over the past 18 years. The guerilla tactics used spread fear and caused an over-reaction that lead to the spending of obscene amounts of money on everything from F-35s to foreign entanglements to the TSA in the name of defense and safety. Now, that’s not to say the F-35 is a direct response to 9/11, it certainly isn’t. But it came about in an era where no one was going to say “no” to increased defense spending, no matter what the cost.
One of the immutable laws of weapons procurement I learned during my time in the Pentagon was this; everybody wants something good, fast, and cheap, but you can only pick two. If you want something good and fast, it isn’t going to be cheap. If you want something good and cheap, it isn’t going to be fast. And if you want something fast and cheap, it isn’t going to be good. The war-fighter and the taxpayer would have been much better off had someone up the chain remembered this maxim.
It always behooves us to channel our inner Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian military theorist, and remember the key to victory in war is attacking the opponent’s strategy–after all, our adversaries are certainly attacking ours.