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Just Because It's High Tech and Costs $257 Billion Doesn't Mean It Works

The Saga of the Joint Strike Fighter

by WINSLOW T. WHEELER

Remember America’s P-39 "Aircobra" or the all-purpose Messerschmitt 210 Hornisse (Me-210 Hornet) of World War II? Or perhaps the U.S. Air Force’s expensive all-weather F-89 Scorpion of 1950?

Everyone should. They carry important lessons. Each was an advanced technology combat aircraft, and the Bell P-39 was even low cost, relatively speaking. But each was also a dismal failure.

The P-39 was almost helpless against the Japanese Zero; the Me-210 – produced in considerable numbers ­ was such a disaster that German pilots refused to fly it, and it was fobbed off onto Germany’s "allies." The F-89 didn’t even make it into the air combat of the Korean war. That a combat aircraft is "high tech" or even that it is expensive is no guaranty it will be a success in combat.

In the 1970s, the Air Force started to buy large numbers of the low cost F-16 to compliment the high cost F-15. Both designs were highly successful, but neither were what the Air Force initially wanted. The subject of internal bureaucratic wars, both designs, especially the F-16, were forced on the Air Force by a small group that became known as the "fighter mafia." The aircrafts’ extraordinary performance paid off, both in combat and in the Pentagon bureaucracy. Today the Defense Department (DOD) seeks to replicate the F-15/F-16 experience with small numbers of the high cost F-22 and large numbers of the low cost Joint Strike Fighter (also designated F-35).

It is unclear, however, whether the F-22/F-35 duo comes from the tradition of the F-15/F-16 or the P-39 and the F-89. The F-22 is already the subject of considerable controversy, and it appears the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be in for the same.

A recent report on the F-35 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells a foreboding story. Begun in 1996, the program is already showing cost increases, production reductions, and schedule delays. Worse, the ongoing acquisition plan is to ignore the highly successful "fly before you buy" experience with the F-16 and to test the F-35 only well after full production has begun.

According to the GAO report, the current DOD plan is to spend $257 billion to buy 2,443 aircraft with the first aircraft becoming operational in 2013. This plan is already costing 84 percent more in the development phase than originally planned; program acquisition costs per aircraft are up 28 percent, and it is all taking five years longer than first thought. Moreover, the DOD plan has already reduced the number of aircraft to be produced by 535 aircraft. The report also notes that there appears to be little promise that the current acquisition plan will not experience even more cost overruns, schedule delays, and production reductions.

Nor is there any promise that F-35 performance will be what was originally promised. In fact, no one will know until well after production has begun. Flight testing will not begin until four years after production starts. By 2013 when initial operational testing is finally complete, 424 aircraft will have been produced. As so often happens with such "concurrent" acquisition programs, when the inevitable technical problems are discovered, there will be additional delays and costs to address them.

The GAO recommends that DOD delay most production until after sufficient testing has shown the design can perform at just a basic level, but the Pentagon has rejected that modest, even tentative, recommendation. The unfortunate result would seem almost inevitable.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. He spent 31 years working for US Senators from both parties and the Government Accountability Office. He contributed an essay on the defense budget to CounterPunch’s new book: Dime’s Worth of Difference. Wheeler’s new book, "The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security," is published by the Naval Institute Press.