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Is This Jet Worth $1.45 Trillion?

With the possible exception of the atomic bomb, the F-35 Lightning II is the most expensive piece of military technology in the history of human civilization. Given high R&D expenses and the tendency of U.S. military project managers to effectively write blank checks to private contractors, most observers have gotten used to the fact that the U.S. military is a big spender—but even by the standard of the hawkiest hawk, the F-35 is a hard pill to swallow.

So I have to admit I smiled when I watched Pierre Sprey, best known as the eccentric genius who helped design the F-16 and A-10, tear the F-35 concept to shreds. As a performance, it’s flawless.

But if there’s one thing the Solar Freakin’ Roadways and thorium car videos have told us, it’s that it’s easy to turn out a persuasive, high-quality performance that sounds rock solid and isn’t. And sadly, much of what Pierre Sprey says about modern jets—that stealth is a “scam,” that multi-function jets like the F-15 don’t work, that vertical takeoff offers no significant advantages, and so on—just doesn’t hold water. Foxtrot Alpha’s Tyler Rogoway gives Pierre Sprey the Pierre Sprey treatment, taking his argument apart point by point and concluding that…

“[H]is inflexible, almost laser like obsession with stripped down, single role light fighters is where his arguments all comes apart … In the end he is an aerospace and defense extremist, and a colorful one at that, but he needs a new bag of tricks to woo over a well informed crowd as the decades old ones he keeps using just aren’t believable or even historically accurate anymore.”

Now, you might be thinking: since neither of these guys like the F-35, why does any of this matter? It matters because there will inevitably be a next generation of jets, and if the industry learns the wrong lessons from the F-35 fiasco, there will be an unnecessary large number of jets that serve unnecessarily specialized functions. End result: a private military contracting industry that’s even more bloated than it already is, and a cluster of duplicative jet projects that make the F-35’s projected US$1.45T price tag look downright reasonable by comparison.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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