In the military, diversity matters. Stay with me on this.
You have an army to fight on land, a navy to protect the sea, and an air force to control the sky. Each force trains its people in the skills it will need in its area. Each designs weapons systems to help it win its specific battles. Each stays, mostly, in its lane.
As an Air Force veteran, I can tell you that even within our branch of service, the need for different equipment when pursuing each mission is critical.
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There’s room for people who are expert at more than one thing, of course. But there’s a reason there are only a few Marines or Navy SEALs: They can be deployed alongside larger forces, but they cannot replace those larger forces.
Having quantity — a large, properly equipped Army and Navy — is in itself a form of quality.
The American military, unfortunately, is decades into a failed experiment at eliminating weapon diversity. This, coupled with the Obama administration’s sequestration — which exacerbated the degradation of our military readiness — created a crisis. Thankfully, the Trump administration has budgeted to correct this problem; however, the way those funds are used is significant, which brings us to the F-35 issue.
Back in the mid-1990s, the Pentagon conceived of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a weapon that could replace several different Army, Navy and Air Force planes. The jets would share up to 80 percent of their parts and then could be built quickly for any branch of the service.
Predictably, things haven’t worked out. By trying to design a plane that could do everything, the military ended up with one that couldn’t seem to do anything.
The Air Force wanted stealth. That didn’t matter as much to the Marines, who wanted a vertical takeoff and landing. The Navy needed one that could land on short runways. All of the services ended up with a plane that was too heavy, too clunky, and simply didn’t work very well.
As the manufacturer tried to fix this and improve that, the plane was delayed. Meanwhile, the military didn’t want to wait for the jet to prove itself, so it rushed the plane into the air. “During the flight testing, the military found the F-35 needed structural and electronic modifications,” a journalist for Popular Mechanics explained. “The fact that it had already produced many of the aircraft made the fix far more expensive.”
Finally, just to get the plane into service, the Pentagon had to start lowering its standards, in my view.
“To avoid further delays resulting from design changes, in 2012 the Pentagon accepted a reduced combat radius for the F-35A and a longer takeoff run for the F-35B. The F-35B’s estimated combat radius was reduced by 15 percent,” the Popular Mechanics writer noted in his piece originally published in 2016 and updated last year. Fixing previous mistakes cost some $1.7 billion — making the planes even more expensive.
“The annual F-35 operating and support costs are estimated to be considerably higher than the combined annual costs of several legacy aircraft,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in a draft report last month. The new planes would cost about $20 billion a year to operate, roughly twice the cost of the systems the plane was supposed to replace.
There’s an answer available, of course: Pair the F-35 with existing systems, such as the F-15 for the Air Force, to deliver diversity and mission focus.
“As an Air Force veteran, I can tell you that even within our branch of service, the need for different equipment when pursuing each mission is critical.”
This makes sense from a financial viewpoint as well. Going forward, the F-35A’s cost per flying hour is $32,500. The Air Force F-16 costs $25,500 per hour. So it makes sense the Air Force wants to purchase new F-16s. The F-16 is a single engine plane, while the F-15 is a faster and more powerful twin engine.
“We remain committed to the F-35 and its game-changing capabilities,” Air Force Maj. Gen. John Pletcher recently told Military.com.
However, he noted that adding F-15 jets “balances readiness and modernization in the near-term.” This highlights the need for diversity.
The Trump administration agrees and has budgeted for the request.
Now it’s up to lawmakers in Congress. They may face political pressure from lobbyists, but they should hold firm.
When people insist that the Air Force needs only one type of fighter jet, they’re ignoring both recent and long-term history.
Diversity of weapon systems wins wars. The proven F-15 should be a part of the American weapons mix for years to come.
Greg Young is the host of the nationally syndicated “Chosen Generation Radio,” a program that airs Monday through Friday on stations coast-to-coast. He served as a Russian linguist in the United States Air Force. He has been married for 32 years and has five children and two grandchildren.
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