The most expensive weapon ever built

Daniel Soar,
London Review of Books.

On the night of 12 January, there was a series of explosions at Mezzeh military airport on the outskirts of Damascus. A few warehouses were destroyed but no one died. The Syrian government blamed rocket attacks launched from inside Israel. The targets were missile systems, sources close to the Israeli government said, that could have been delivered to Hizbullah in Lebanon. According to some reports, however, the attacks were carried out not by rockets but by fighter jets – specifically, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, the Joint Strike Fighter, a US-built ‘fifth generation’ stealth jet with super-advanced avionics that has been under development for the last twenty years at a cost of many billions of dollars. In early March, a reporter for the Figaro, Georges Malbrunot, said that according to French intelligence sources the strikes had unquestionably been carried out by a pair of F-35s: not only that, but one of them had gone on to buzz Assad’s palace in a fuck-you show of force.

The F-35 is the most expensive weapon ever built. Israel took delivery of its first two exemplars a month before the Mezzeh raid, and it’s worth bearing in mind that no one with any knowledge of how air forces operate thinks it’s remotely likely that the IAF would have risked its new baby so soon, and on such a trivial mission. Still, it never hurts to give people a hint of what you might be capable of. Israel is very proud of its machines. Four thousand people were invited to see the two F-35s arrive at Nevatim air base in the Negev on 12 December, after a complex journey from their base in Texas – six days, two layovers, at least ten mid-air refuellings. Unembarrassed by a slight extra delay (spectators were kept waiting for six hours thanks to fog over northern Italy), Netanyahu gave a rousing speech celebrating the ‘long arm’ of Israel’s defence equipment. ‘This long arm was just made longer and mightier today,’ he told the assembled VIPs, among whose number were the CEO of Lockheed, Marillynn Hewson, and Obama’s outgoing defence secretary, Ash Carter, who had helped seal the deal. Israel is the only country that has been allowed to make significant modifications to the F-35: its variant, nicknamed the Adir (‘the mighty one’), includes a few extra computer systems of Israel’s own devising. There’s a picture of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defence minister, sitting in the cockpit of an F-35 during a visit last summer to Lockheed’s Fort Worth facility: he’s grinning like a little boy. Israel is now down to purchase fifty F-35s, at a total cost of $7 billion. Last September, Obama and Netanyahu signed a new Memorandum of Understanding, according to which Israel is promised $38 billion of military aid over the next decade. Twenty per cent of that money is going to F-35 procurement: a nice subvention of American taxpayer dollars to an American company, with the bonus of providing the IAF with two squadrons of the baddest fighter jet on the planet.

But a few hours before the Adirs landed in all their glory – just check out the promotional shots of them flying into the sunset – Donald Trump, then still president-elect, tweeted: ‘The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.’ Lockheed Martin’s shares immediately dropped 4 per cent. Trump had a point, though. Over the lifetime of the project the US is expected to have spent $1.5 trillion designing, building and maintaining 2500 planes for its own use: enough to forgive the entire nation’s student debts, or pay for the healthcare of every low-income American family for the next three years, or build a border wall that encircles the Earth four times. The Joint Strike Fighter programme was launched in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration, with the aim of developing an aircraft that could for the first time be adapted for use by three separate branches of the US military – the air force, the navy and the marines. It would have to be stealthy – hard to detect by radar – and it would have to be able to dance rings in the skies around any nimble jet the Russians or Chinese might come up with. It would also have to be able to bomb targets on the ground five hundred miles away from base – an impressive range, for a fighter – and operate from the deck of a heaving warship at night and, if push really came to shove, hover and land like a helicopter. The last mass-produced fighter jet that did that, the British-designed Harrier, which unfortunately couldn’t quite break the sound barrier, entered service in 1969, did tours in the Falklands War, and had possibly the worst accident rate of any military plane in history: by 2002, a third of the fleet had been lost in non-combatant crashes, killing (among others) 45 marines.

But the expense was largely the point. An enormous project brings an enormous number of jobs, and Lockheed sensibly ensured that everyone and his neighbour was invested in keeping it from going belly-up. The joke term for this is ‘political engineering’: for all its rivets, bearings, shafts, ducts and pipes – as well as its fibre optics and sensor systems and radar and onboard computers – the F-35 programme now involves more than 1200 suppliers in 45 US states, accounting for forty thousand jobs in Texas alone. It’s a brave congressman who will stand up and complain about appropriations when hordes of sizeable businesses are going to have at him for it. So Congress barely peeped as costs soared – though there were a few notable holdouts, like Senator John McCain, who called it ‘a scandal and a tragedy’. McCain is a leading representative of a dissident American military tradition that prefers light and agile to massive and lumbering, but it may not be insignificant that his home state, Arizona, is one of the few where Lockheed has recently shed jobs rather than piled them on. (What Arizona has instead of multiple Lockheed facilities is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, aka the Boneyard, a place where decommissioned military aircraft go to die. The dry desert air has proved invaluable for preserving metal. At current count, there are – among its thousands of abandoned hulks – fifty dead BAE Harriers, 167 dead F-15s and 467 dead F-16s. In satellite imagery, the matchbox planes – neatly arranged by size and type – look like the playthings of some obsessive giant-child.)

Spreading the load and marshalling a coalition of the willing is of course standard operating procedure for the US defence industry. You need to get all those makers of grommets and clamps onboard. But in the case of the F-35, where Lockheed and the Pentagon have really innovated is in taking the campaign global. The last stealth fighter the US deployed, the F-22 Raptor, was for internal consumption only: just 187 were built, and because export was prohibited and the suppliers were mostly domestic, the price per aircraft remained high and it never really took off (metaphorically speaking – it’s seen plenty of action over Syria). The F-35 was conceived on a totally different model: from the beginning, a large number of allied nations would be involved in its development and production. In 2001, Blair’s minister for defence procurement, Lord Bach, was on the podium in Virginia for the announcement of Lockheed’s winning bid: the UK, as a ‘major partner’ in the programme, nominally had a say in the decision, having contributed a couple of billion towards development costs and committed to buying 138 of the finished product. The following year, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, was spotted at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC meeting with Lockheed executives: he came out after putting in an order for 72 planes, despite continuing to pretend that Australia’s door was open to salesmen from other countries (a representative from France’s Dassault Aviation, Daniel Frémont, who had just relocated to Sydney to negotiate a multi-year contract to supply the RAAF with a few squadrons of the Rafale fighter jet, was somewhat put out when he found that the door had secretly been shut in his face). F-35 customers now include Turkey, Italy, Canada, Norway, Japan, South Korea, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Read full article in London Review of Books

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