ABOARD THE USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER — Visitors to this aircraft carrier walked out the door to their perch overlooking the flight deck, eyes struggling to adjust to the sunlight, and scanned the sky for a black dot off the stern of the ship.
After a high-pitched whine, the black dot blossomed into a hulking F-35 joint strike fighter. It closed in on the vast ship, thumped onto the deck, grabbed the arresting wire and lurched to a complete stop in just over 300 feet. While the visitors' ears were protected with both earplugs and over-the-ear headphones, their skulls rattled with the roar of the jet's engine.
As quickly as the thunderous jet had broken the stillness of a sunny day in the Atlantic about 100 miles off the coast of Virginia, it was quiet again, replaced by the yells of sailors on the flight deck, preparing the F-35 for its next takeoff as it neared the end of its second test at sea.
Cmdr. Tony Wilson, who flew during both development tests of the plane, was living a childhood dream as a test pilot for the F-35. Still, that didn't take away the inevitable moment of "sheer doubt" he had when he became the first person to land the Navy's variant on the aircraft carrier Nimitz last November.
All the algorithms and models and computer projections showed the plane would be able to stop safely, but it was Wilson's job to do it for real, so you never really know.
Coming onboard the Eisenhower for the second set of tests this month, however, Wilson had no doubts. He's confident in the plane's abilities and had adjusted to it after nearly 200 flight hours behind the stick.
"There were no surprises," Wilson said. "There was no doubt coming aboard."
Yet the F-35 is having a more difficult time landing on Capitol Hill.
It's behind schedule, over budget and glitches mean it's getting bad press — about ejection seats that could snap smaller pilots' necks, for example, and a $400,000 helmet that produced a "green glow" that handicaps night flying.
On a more strategic level, officials have found that the F-35 can't compete with existing fighters in certain situations, such as a close-range dog fight, leading critics to conclude that the most expensive acquisition program in the Pentagon's history is not living up to the hype. But defenders say it more than makes up for its shortcomings with advanced sensor and stealth technologies that will change how the military fights.
Some members of Congress argue that the delays and increasing costs are worth it, for the F-35 will make the American military technologically superior to any other in the world. Others say the Pentagon should not be ramping up production of a plane that still has glitches and isn't the best fighter in all mission areas.
Reaction on the Hill
The scope and cost of the F-35 program are unprecedented, with the acquisition expected to cost $400 billion, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. The lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, is developing three versions: the Air Force's A-version that can take off from a traditional runway, the Marine Corps' B-version, which will be able to take off and land vertically, and the Navy's C-version, which can land on a carrier using arresting gear and take off using a catapult to launch it from the short carrier runway at sea.
The aircraft has eight foreign partners comprising a global development and supply chain, and more countries are lining up to be customers. All this makes development more complicated.
The Marine Corps declared its version of the aircraft operational in July, with 10 planes ready to deploy around the world. The Air Force and Navy are supposed to reach this milestone by December 2016 and February 2019 respectively, Lockheed Martin says.
In addition to advanced jet fighter capabilities, the aircraft is also meant to work as a giant sensor in the sky, collecting information and sharing it with an entire battle group to keep other pilots, ships and commanders informed about the battlespace.
The Navy's variant completed a second round of flight tests from the Eisenhower this month, and flew successfully in rough weather as Hurricane Joaquin barreled up the East Coast. It also completed some high-risk tests, such as determining the minimum speed required to launch the plane.
Congressional supporters, such as Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, say the fighter jet will allow the U.S. to maintain its technological edge over adversaries, chief among them China, which is seeking to close the gap quickly.
"While they are still not our equals, if we stall on development of the next-generation fighter, they will catch up. We can't afford to let this happen," Poe said in a statement. "In my opinion, it is well worth the investment to maintain our air superiority and stay ahead of China and the rest of the world."
Others disagree strongly. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the F-35 recently making deadlines and exceeding expectations is only because the planes have been "jury-rigged" to work around problems and meet the initial operating capability.
"They're running the logistics off laptops and there's no permanent fix in sight; they've restricted lightweight pilots because the ejection seat and helmet could break their necks; and they don't yet have capabilities you'd need against an actual enemy," Speier said in a statement. "We certainly shouldn't be ramping up to full-rate production at this phase."
One reason the program is likely to maintain support among lawmakers, despite major scheduling delays and cost overruns, is that it will create jobs in their districts, said Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for defense at the Heritage Foundation. While Lockheed Martin is the main contractor, parts of the project are spread across 40 states, Wood said.
"If you're a member of Congress and it's about jobs and constituent interests, there's an incentive to keep the program going," he said. "Who's going to vote against the program if it means loss of jobs?"
Future of the program
Even with the problems and critics in Congress, analysts say the program will not be cut because it's often costlier and more time-consuming to cancel a program than to just keep going once it's started.
"Everybody has kind of got to have it, so they're not going to suddenly scrap it and start over," said Gordon Adams, professor of foreign policy at American University. "Whatever problems it encounters, we're going to buy it."
The F-35 will likely face a similar fate to that of previous Pentagon programs, what Adams calls "stretch and shrink." That means the military will slow down how quickly it buys the F-35, and, ultimately, buy fewer of them.
The three services combined plan to produce about 2,500 of the planes. Analysts expect it will be fewer than that, but had no estimate of what the final number might be.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says the government will have to cut its purchases because of the "prohibitive" cost of the original number. "There's just not going to be that money," he told the Washington Examiner. "Do the math."
A reduced buy of F-35s plays into the debate in Congress over saving the A-10 from retirement despite Air Force pressure to get rid of those aging aircraft. "That's one reason why we're fighting to keep the A-10 in existence," said McCain, "because they're saying the F-35 would replace the A-10, but there aren't going to be that many F-35s."
There's also the big problem of what would be the next generation aircraft if the F-35 program was abruptly halted, since aging systems can't compete with adversaries' tech advancements.
"If not the F-35, then how do you foresee conducting air operations in a highly contested anti-air environment?" Wood said. "There's an argument being made for, regardless of the difficulties or cost, you really have no other viable option if you think you'll have to go up against sophisticated anti-air missiles."
The fact that there are no good alternatives is helping save the project. But depending entirely on the F-35 as the F-16s and F-15s retire would also pose problems if enemies find a chink in the F-35's armor, Wood said.
"If it were less expensive or there were more dollars, you could buy different kinds of platforms and have the ability to account for a discovered deficiency in the F-35," he said. "With the enemy discovering how it operates, they might find a weak spot to exploit. Once it's done, that would make your entire fleet vulnerable, because you won't have other options to default to."
Defense contractors' profits depend on the F-35, especially because there would be overseas sales, Adams said.
Eight countries, including Turkey, Australia and the United Kingdom, have signed on as partners to help develop the plane. But international support may be waning. Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian prime minister elected last week, said he would not buy any F-35s and would instead use the money saved to pay for Navy projects and replace aging CF-18 fighters, Reuters reported.
Canada has already contributed $150 million to the programs' development, which it would not get back if it decided not to purchase any planes, the article said.
McCain said the high costs, estimated to be $150 million per plane, are the reason behind the Canadians' reluctance to buy the aircraft.
"I think that they are looking at the costs. I can't say I blame them," he said.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the day after the election that it would be "inappropriate" to comment on any changes in the two countries' partnership on the F-35. He also said he looked forward to continuing the close defense relationship between the U.S. and Canada.
Adding to all this, the complications with the F-35 are actually no worse than previous Pentagon acquisitions programs that have faced massive problems, drawn a lot of criticism and gone on to be useful, analysts said.
"The F-35 is only the latest chapter in a long history that generally follow the rule of what I call 'two, two and a half,' " Adams said. "Everything the Pentagon buys costs twice as much as they originally estimated, takes twice as long [to build] and, at least initially, gives half of the capabilities you expected."
Adams pointed to the C-17, which was the subject of "vigorous" debate and criticism when he ran defense budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. By the mid-1990s, however, services had worked out the bugs and the military ended up buying more planes than planned.
Capabilities in the fleet
For their part, the sailors who got to work with the F-35 during test flights aboard the Eisenhower largely heaped praise on the Navy's newest piece of technology, saying they were excited to play a part in the future of naval aviation.
But government reports have continued to find problems with how the plane performs. The aging F-16 repeatedly bested the F-35 in a series of 17 dog fights, according to an analysis by the Project on Government Oversight released this year. This failure to succeed when pitted head-to-head against older aircraft prompted the organization to call for Congress and the Pentagon to reevaluate plans for the Defense Department's biggest program in history.
The F-35's performance was "substantially inferior" to older planes like the F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s, and often ended up being defensive against an attack because of difficulty maneuvering, according to a test pilot's report analyzed by POGO.
Rear Adm. John Haley, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, acknowledged that the newest joint strike fighter does not beat legacy aircraft in close-quarter fighting. But while the military could build something to best the F-16s, that's not what the military of the future needs, he said.
Instead, the F-35's stealth and sensor advantages will be more useful to battle group commanders in future conflicts, enabling the aircraft to spot threats it can't outmaneuver before it can be detected itself.
"I'm not saying that there aren't airplanes out there that could beat this thing if you put it in a bad position. What I'm saying is the airplane has such great sensors, the chances of it getting in that situation are slim," he said.
During testing aboard the Eisenhower, pilots were also able to fly for the first time with the Generation 3 helmet at night while at sea, simulating real-world combat conditions with no light pollution. Lt. Cmdr. Christian Sewell said the display is much crisper and the problematic "green glow" that made it difficult for pilots to fly in the Generation 2 helmets is reduced.
"Now that I'm used to it, it's great," Sewell said. "I wouldn't want to fly without it."
Wilson acknowledged there are things he didn't like initially about the plane, but that most of his complaints were based on biases or habits he picked up flying F/A-18 Hornets for 13 years of his career.
These issues, he said, don't affect the mission and also won't be an issue for the young pilots who begin their careers flying the F-35.
Haley said the next generation of pilots will be more adaptable, unbiased and able to think outside the box to use the aircraft in ways today's troops haven't even imagined yet.
"This airplane is just right for them," he said.