Ruth: Botching F-35 dwarfs ACA website

The F-35 went into development in 2001. After $400 billion, it's still plagued with problems. U.S. Navy
The F-35 went into development in 2001. After $400 billion, it's still plagued with problems.U.S. Navy
Published October 24 2013
Updated October 24 2013

There isn't enough lipstick in the world to make the Affordable Care Act's website pig look like a Vogue model. Little wonder then Roget's Thesaurus is groaning under the weight of Washington's ire to describe perhaps the worst inept debut since The Lone Ranger.

How else to characterize a $300 million (and counting) federal government website that turned out to be the bureaucratic equivalent of Donkey Kong?

Fiasco? Check. Boondoggle? You betcha. Train wreck? Yep. Blunder? No doubt. Farce? Absolutely. Let's all pile on. Congressional hearings are in full outrage, high dudgeon. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is being fitted for the public stocks. The criticism, the dismay, is all very fair.

But the congressional crusade for fiscal accountability would seem to be somewhat selective. If the Beltway is going to fulminate over $300 million wasted to create a website, surely there must be some froth to spare for the $400 billion already flushed away to develop the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which after years of delays and cost overruns has yet to shoot so much as a pea against an adversary in combat.

The F-35, which was touted to become the most sophisticated combat aircraft in history, went into development in 2001. Fast forward 12 years to January, when J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation, appeared before the U.S. Senate's Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. It wasn't pretty.

Gilmore told the committee that after 12 years and $400 billion, the F-35 can't fly at night. It can't fly in bad weather. It can't fly if there is lightning in the area. It can't fly in close formation. It can't be allowed to stall in training, which is an essential protocol for any aviator, even student pilots at the controls of a single-engine Cessna.

Gilmore described a litany of design and production flaws including various cracks in the plane's fuselage, radar problems and a poorly conceived cockpit that limits the pilot's peripheral vision, which is sort an important issue for a aircraft that is supposed to engage in aerial dogfights.

But wait! There's more. If the F-35 ever does manage to become operational, which some experts say might not be until 2017, or perhaps as late as 2019, it will require close-air protective support from the existing generation of combat aircraft — the very planes the Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to replace.

The per unit cost of a single F-35 — leather seats optional — is projected to be about $137 million, or almost half the price of the botched ACA website. In all, the F-35 program is expected to cost between $1.1 trillion and $1.5 trillion.

Now you might think if Congress managed to work itself into a full Jack Nicholson in The Shining frenzy over $300 million frittered away for a Model T ACA website, the reaction to spending $400 billion to date on a horribly flawed jet fighter that appears to be more fragile than Blanche DuBois would be cacophonous.

Instead — crickets chirping. Why is that?

It turns out the F-35 is too big to stop.

As Bloomberg News noted, the F-35's main developer, Lockheed Martin Corp., was savvy enough to spread the $400 billion wealth around, employing (in this country alone) 1,300 subcontractors in 45 states who collectively provide 133,000 jobs. What member of Congress — Republican or Democrat — would want to tamper with that golden goose?

Indeed, Lockheed Martin recently opened a 57,000-square-foot facility in Pinellas Park that currently employs 250 people to produce canopy components for the F-35. Now there's some long-term job security for you.

The Sturm und Drang over an ACA website, the left-handed screwdriver of technology, continues unabated in Washington. It's a disaster enveloped by a calamity, enshrouded by the mother of all glitches.

Meanwhile the F-35 continues to move ever forward — even if it's mostly on the ground — without so much as a peep, a frown, a whisper of protest over how it is possible to spend 12 years and $400 billion on what may well turn out to be the most expensive museum piece ever built.