Trump is right to consider canceling the F-35

Donald Trump debated defense policy in a tweet today, saying:

Based on the tremendous cost and cost overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet!

And he's right to do so.  The F-35 was supposed to replace the F-16, A-10, and F/A-18.  But it's turned into a much more expensive mess.

A single Air Force F-35A costs a whopping $148 million. One Marine Corps F-35B costs an unbelievable $251 million. A lone Navy F-35C costs a mind-boggling $337 million. Average the three models together, and a “generic” F-35 costs $178 million.

It gets worse. These are just the production costs. Additional expenses for research, development, test and evaluation are not included. The dollars are 2015 dollars. This data was just released by the Senate Appropriations Committee in its report for the Pentagon’s 2015 appropriations bill.

For more than the past decade, our Air Force has been used solely against Islamic barbarians who have no air force to speak of and practically nonexistent air defenses.  Paying $178 million for a "stealthy" plane makes absolutely no sense.

The only purpose for such an advanced plane would be for a conflict against China or Russia.  With China, we have a much, much more effective weapon than the F-35 already.  It's called the boycott.  The minute America closes its doors to Chinese goods in a military conflict, a large portion of the Chinese economy would be idled.  The country would descend into chaos, as a huge portion of their labor force would be thrown out of work.

As for Russia, they do have advanced jets, but despite their incursions in Ukraine and Syria, there does not seem to be an indication that a war with them is on the horizon.

Given that, it makes no sense to pay so much for a stealthy plane to fight 7th-century savages.  While the Super Hornet Trump references is based on older and non-state-of-the-art technology, we simply don't need more at the moment.

Plus the F-35 is plagued with problems.  A small sampling:

  • Current aircraft software is inadequate for even basic pilot training.
  • Ejection seat may fail, causing pilot fatality.
  • Several pilot-vehicle interface issues, including lack of feedback on touchscreen controls.
  • The radar performs poorly, or not at all.
  • Engine replacement takes an average of 52 hours, instead of the two hours specified.
  • Maintenance tools do not work.

While we have a lot of sunk research costs in the F-35 that are unrecoverable, the question is how to allocate our money today, and the F-35 would be a waste at current prices.

If Trump cannot negotiate a more reasonable price per plane, we should take that money and use it for what the military really needs.  First and foremost, we need more soldiers in all branches of the military.  Obama has shrunk the armed forces down to unconscionable levels.

Secondly, we need more drones – a lot of them.  Just think: if one F-35 crashes, we have lost nearly $200 million.  If a Reaper drone crashes, we lose only $15 million.  Drones are much better suited for the kind of wait-hunt-chase warfare we are in now than fighter jets.

We need naval drones as well.  The image of our giant aircraft carriers threatened by tiny Iranian speedboats with missiles is ridiculous.  Our Navy needs a smaller footprint with bigger payloads. We need more drones and more submarines armed with cruise missiles.

Finally, bring back the A-10s.  They were very low-tech, but they were great planes, low-flying, full of destructive power, and armored so they were hard to bring down.  Sometimes older, proven technology doesn't necessarily make for a bad choice.  Low tech paired with low prices means you can buy in higher volume.

This tweet from Trump could just be a negotiating ploy on Trump's part to lower the price of the plane, as he did for the successor to Air Force One.  But whether he negotiates a lower price or cancels the project entirely, he's on the right track.

Ed Straker is the senior writer at  He studied defense policy with a former head of the National Security Agency, a retired army general.