US congressman says F-35 is a “Rathole”

  • Congressman Adam Smith is calling to end funding for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
  • The congressman calls the plane a “rathole” and says it should be replaced by a range of different jets.
  • The F-35 may deserve termination, but in practical terms, it’s just not possible.

The new head of the House Armed Services Committee has called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter a “rathole” and wants to halt funding for it. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., suggested the Pentagon should “cut its losses” and invest in a range of jets.

But is that even possible? As usual, the truth is complicated.

In a webcast conversation with the Brookings Institution on March 5, Smith said the F-35 “doesn’t work particularly well” and is too costly to keep up, per the Washington Post:

“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” Smith said.

He characterized the F-35 as an overly expensive defense platform with disappointing capabilities. He criticized the jet’s sustainment costs as “brutal,” and said he was skeptical they would ever go down. The solution, he said, is to invest in other fighter jets so the Defense Department has a range of options at its fingertips.

As the Post points out, Smith’s congressional district in Seattle is heavily dependent on aviation giant Boeing, the builder of the F-15EX Eagle and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters. Boeing’s chief competitor is Lockheed Martin, the builder of the F-35.

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Is the F-35 actually a “rathole”? Smith’s comment comes after recent allegations that the F-35 program has failed to produce an effective, affordable fighter jet and reports that the U.S. Air Force is studying the acquisition of a new fighter jet. That “4.5-generation” fighter would be cheaper to buy and fly than the F-35 and replace the F-16 in Air Force service—a role originally reserved exclusively for the F-35.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was an overly ambitious attempt to replace several widely disparate fighters and attack jets with a common airframe. The Pentagon designed the F-35 to replace the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Warthog, the Navy’s F/A-18C Hornet, and the Marine Corps’ F/A-18C and AV-8B Harrier II jets.

A single airframe, with modifications both small and large across the fleet, would replace multi-role fighters; mud-moving, close air support aircraft; carrier-launched fighters; and short take-off and vertical landing fighters.

united states air force lockheed martin f 35a lightning ii
U.S. Air Force F-35A at RAF Fairford, July 2018.

The F-35’s problems (and there are a lot of them) are well documented. All three flavors of the jet—the Air Force’s -A model, the Marine Corps’s -B model, and the Navy’s and Marines’ -C model—were at least 3 years late entering service, and even today, there are problems with the jet’s readiness and high cost-per-flight hour.

Scores of the jets need important updates to the latest version, a legacy of the Pentagon’s decision to begin production of the aircraft before engineers finalized the design and worked out the kinks. The F-35 still suffers from a lack of testing and lingering issues that need to be addressed before the plane enters full-scale production.

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