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Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part I)

Joint strike fighter of the US Navy, courtesy of Mark Schierbecker/wikimedia

This article was originally published May 16 2014 by The Disorder of Things.

How big is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? By one set of measures, it is three times bigger than the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, ten times bigger than either the Apollo Project or the International Space Station or Hurricane Katrina, or one hundred times bigger than the Panama Canal. These comparisons are only moderately outlandish. US$1.45 trillion is the Pentagon’s own December 2010 estimate of lifetime operating and supporting costs for the 2,443 copies of the F-35 currently on order by the United States government, which we can then compare to the known price tags, in 2007 dollars, of these five projects.[1] Costs—also variously prefaced as procurement, actual, sunk, fly-away, upgrade, true and so on—and their contestations are central to a discourse of accountancy that surrounds all projects that require large-scale mobilization of public power. But enormous as they are, these numbers still cannot capture the size of this particular weapons program. To understand just how big the F-35 is, I wish to suggest in this two-part post, we ought to conceive it as a proper assemblage—a heterogeneous association of human and nonhuman elements that is at once split, processual, emergent, and, most importantly, constitutive of the modern international.

To explore this proposition, I follow the tenets of early actor–network theory (ANT), and in particular the work of one of its founding fathers, John Law.[2] It was through a series of case studies of the TSR-2, early Cold War-era nuclear-capable multi-role aircraft commissioned and eventually cancelled by the United Kingdom government that Law advanced an argument that human actors hold no a priori primacy over things in constituting the social or, if you prefer, the socio-technical.[3] Here is one revealing passage:

An aircraft, yes, is an object. But it also reveals multiplicity—for instance in wing shape, speed, military roles, and political attributes. I am saying, then, that an object such as an aircraft—an “individual” and “specific” aircraft—comes in different versions. It has no single center. It is multiple. And yet these various versions also interfere with one another and shuffle themselves together to make a single aircraft.

So instead of thinking about aircraft as objects with concrete essences and purposes, Law is inviting us to see them as “decentered” and “fractionally coherent”—as assemblages or networks that become objects only in interactions with other assemblages. He is further suggesting that assemblages are made up of both material and social elements that come together in contingent ways. And what is more, Law accepts that objects are also actors that can exert force—hence the term actor-network. In this ontology, aircraft are at once networks of multiple components, organic and inorganic, that have become connected in a particular way and heterogeneous actors capable of producing, inter alia, salaries and sound pollution, fear and loathing as well as theories and policies.

As a deeply relational way of understanding the world, assemblage sensibility is devilishly challenging to enact in “standard” case study terms. One option is to forgo the familiar historical or sociological narrative structure and opt for, as Law does in his Aircraft Stories, for a less disciplined “logic of the pinboard.”[4] I will follow a similar logic in this post, but the title of the post should be read merely as a homage. What I offer are snippets rather than chapter- and article-length stories laden with philosophical depth and ethnographic detail like those penned by Law. I organized them in sections entitled “Joint,” “Strike,” and “Fighter,” the three words that make up the program’s proper name.[5] My goal in each section will be to pin down at least some key processes of assembly at work without which this aircraft would not be possible. I am also hoping that our resident (you know who you are) and non-resident experts in this type of theorizing will help me better appreciate all the big and small ways in which the F-35’s emergent properties and capacities interact with, and constitute, the contemporary international/global connections.


Jointness, or jointery, is a conflicted signifier in the military-political idiom. “Joint operations” relates to the idea that wars cannot be fought without inter-service cooperation and collaboration (the nearby term “combined operations” refers to strategic, operational, and/or tactical co-work among allies). In its original U.S. context, jointness is a legislative desideratum, going back to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.[6] No nation-specific piece of legislation can dissolve the cultural differences between services with a stroke of a pen, but there is no question that a joint warfighting ethos has become stronger in recent decades, and not just in the U.S. military. When it comes to military procurement, jointness goes back at least to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who famously championed systems that could fit the operational requirements of multiple services, the rationale being war-fighting performance “on the cheap.” For example, when McNamara forced the U.S. Air Force and the Navy into a joint custody of the TFX, a strike bomber
design that subsequently became the F-111 Aardvark, his blueprint was a basic business school model later made famous by Southwest Airlines and, still later, Ryanair (both operate a standardized fleet of Boeing 737s that enables them to reduce overall maintenance and flight operations costs). In this area, jointness has far fewer supporters among experts who see it is fraught with risks typically associated with Soviet-style central planning: “it puts all of the military’s eggs in one basket, stifles creativity and threatens the future for firms.”[7]

In 1994, Congress merged two separate Department of Defense fighter jet projects to create a single aircraft for the three services—hence Joint Strike Fighter, the official name of the program that led to the F-35.[8] Beyond inter-service collaboration, there are other forms of jointness is at work here multi-primary contractor, public-private, intergovernmental, transgovernmental and transnational. Preliminary research contracts for the project that eventually became the F-35 were initially divided among McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin, and these companies formed consortia involving Dassault (then partnered with Boeing) and BAE (then forming a threesome with McDonnell Douglas and Northrop Grumman). By the end of 1995, the program was also internationalized at the government-to-government level: a joint U.S.-UK memorandum of understanding was signed, specifying a 90-10 percent split for co-funding the aircraft’s demonstration phase. By the time the Lockheed Martin-led consortium won the contract in 2001, more U.S. allies joined this joint venture, pitching in millions of dollars towards product development.

The F-35 is known as a “high concurrency” program, which means that the system is designed to be churned out and tested simultaneously. The U.S. has relied on this production structure for almost a century, but usually in the wartime, when there is an imperative to field game-changing weapons as soon as possible. McNamara, for example, was a strong believer in concurrent programs, even after most of them went spectacularly sour under his watch at the Pentagon. Several enactments of, and attempts to enact, a “fly before you buy” policy have taken place since this time but they have had a tendency to be short-lived. One reason is that concurrency is a political invention above all—“production” is infinitely harder to de-fund than the process of development and testing of prototypes. A 2014 independent estimate of the size and geography of the F-35 constituency in the U.S. finds that the program is responsible for 33,000 direct jobs and around 60,000 indirect ones, nearly two-thirds of which are in Texas, California, Florida and Connecticut.[9] This means lobbying. In the 2013-2014 election cycle, for example, Lockheed Martin alone made campaign contributions to 386 members of Congress (72 per cent), paying special attention to the members of the armed services or defense appropriations committees as well as those in the House “F-35 Caucus.”[10]

From the perspective of assemblage-oriented teachings, however, the F-35 program is not a simple function of mischievous Keynesianism emanating from the “Iron Triangle” of Congress, the Pentagon, and contractors like Lockheed Martin. Defense policy and arms production themselves emerge via constant interaction human and nonhuman entities that vary in elasticity, durability and scale. Networks of politics and economy are clearly co-constitutive here, but the point is that they operate at globally and internationally, and in constant conjunction with similarly sized networks in strategy and security, science and technology, as well as in entertainment and popular culture. Further, weapons often come together in ways that cannot be easily predicted by traditional models of politics. The F-35 project was thus initially conditioned not only by Anglo-American political-industrial networks (more on this in the second part of the post), but also by a secretive deal in late 1991 between Lockheed Martin and Yakovlev, Moscow-based military aircraft manufacturer then desperately fighting to survive the post-Soviet transition. The cutting-edge “lift-plus-lift/cruise” configuration that the Russians sold to the Americans for U.S. $400 million is now central to the promise of the F-35B. Similarly, F-35 contractors recently managed to suspend the U.S. government ban on the use of made-in-China parts in defense production in order to gain access cheap but highly specialized rare-earth magnets without which the warplane cannot operate. As government auditors discovered in a recent investigation: “[i]n one case, it would cost $10.8 million and take about 25,000 man-hours to remove the Chinese-made magnets and replace them with American ones.”

Outside the U.S. government, the Joint Strike Fighter program involves, depending on how you count the flags, eight to ten “international partners.” Their all-important levels of partnership (three to four, again depending on who you ask) at once relate to the amount of cash invested, the amount of technology transfer and sub-contracting opportunities available, and the schedule of deliveries.[11] While this arrangement is unique, U.S. interest in co-producing fighter jets internationally is not new. The F-16, Lockheed Martin’s previous bestseller, started off as a co-production (but not co-development) involving four non-U.S. partners. Subsequent Congressional developments, namely the amendments to the Defense Authorization Acts spearheaded by Senator Sam Nunn, encouraged even more inter-allied collaboration in defense production. In theory, the rationale is simultaneously strategic and economic: collaboration cements alliance ties, while also helping to offset development costs and increase exports, lowering unit costs overall. This is where traditional models of politics help. International collaboration involves trade-offs that are inherently unhappy and costly to all involved, but what matters most in the textbook political economy sense is the fact that such arrangements can make project cancellation prohibitively expensive for politicians.[12]

Among U.S. allies, the demand for the F-35 is driven by a number of overlapping forces such as profit- and survival-seeking by national aerospace companies, status-seeking by the air forces, as well as techno-nationalism: “competitiveness,” “burden-sharing,” “seamless interoperability” are but three ideas that are commonly deployed by proponents of this aircraft across partner countries.[13] Initially sold as a revolutionary, affordable and “offset-free” fighter jet, the aircraft has now turned into a complex and contentious political issue and every partner government, save for the oil-rich Norway, has struggled to stay committed to its “original” F-35 order (not the same as the purchase contract) while managing various opportunity costs and commitment-capability gaps against declining budgets. Lockheed Martin still insists that the F-35’s operational and support costs will be about the same or even lower than those of the legacy fighters like the F-16, but fewer and fewer officials and pundits are buying this estimate today.

At the time of this writing, most partner countries cutting down or thinking about cutting down orders, but outright defections are unlikely. The F-35 is deeply embedded in, and mutually reinforcing with, parallel assemblages like global aerospace industry or the NATO alliance. So viewed, one hypothesis is that this web of relations functions thanks to the way actors position themselves not as individuals staking an autonomous claim on strategy, but as constituent nodes in larger business and collective security networks. Despite ongoing issues with performance benchmarks, costs, and schedule overruns, compounded as they are by an underlying pricing, design, and production structure that it gives the U.S. side (i.e., the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S.-headquartered arms producers) nearly all decision-making powers on price and system specifications, the F-35 nevertheless “feels right” to non-American stakeholders.[14]

National sovereignty issues, sometimes dubbed production asymmetries, are part and parcel of all multinational collaboration in weapons procurement and the F-35 is no exception. Perhaps the most striking example in this case is the refusal of the U.S. side to share computer software codes—the famed source codes—and the way this has resulted in a series of empty pull-out threats and botched side-deals. What is at work here is a mix of hard bargaining and recognition politics. Co-developers, co-producers, buyers and would-be buyers all compete with each other to prove that they are worthy of cutting-edge technological secrets and so of gold and platinum member status within the club.

Testing work on the final block of the ten plus million line-long code for the F-35’s onboard computer is yet to be fully completed. This particular task has proven to be extremely challenging, yet it remains vital to effectively integrating the engine, helmet, and other 130 individual subsystems. By design, software manages all but a tenth of the warplane’s function and, also by design, the U.S. manages the software (according to Lockheed Martin, the system is expected to undergo biannual upgrades, presumably in its Fort Worth facility). The same goes for pilot training and aircrew drills. Most if not all classroom, simulator, and flight practice is currently slated to take place at U.S. Air Force Base’s Integrated Training Center in Eglin, Florida. It is not uncommon for states to lease fighter jets instead of buying them, but there are no leasing options for the F-35. Instead, it appears that the dealership simply happens to sell both the machine and the licensing in one place, and the buyer agrees never to look under the hood unsupervised. The U.S. desire to control all F-35s in the world manifests itself through the principle of sovereign territoriality is odd considering that the Americans have comfortably worked with their allies in dozens of training centers around the world. A government decision to share the burden of training, maintenance and upgrades with the people of, say, the Royal Air Force base in Croughton would doubtless disappoint a few contractors in Florida and elsewhere, but this type of institutional power does not lie with them. Once again, instead of looking at the Iron Triangle, analysis should be redirected to a broader and more diffuse political architecture that reproduces U.S.-centric imperial or neo-imperial orders in international political life.

This production arrangement virtually guarantees more political horse-trading among partners in the future, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the house will always win. In late 2010, the White House offered Israel, officially a low-tier partner in the program, twenty “free” F-35s in exchange for a 90-day moratorium on settlement activity in the West Bank. In the interpretation of one well-connected reporter, the
attempted “bribe” spectacularly failed.

[1] For the former, see Shalal-Esa, Andrea. “JSF Lifetime Cost Hits $1.45T: Reuters.” AWIN First, 29 March 2012, 30 March 2012; for the latter, see Newman, Andy. “Comparing Hurricanes: Katrina vs. Sandy.” The New York Times, 28 November 2012, A28 and Calore, Paul. The What it Costs? Website. [Not Dated].

[2] For Law’s take on ANT “origins,” see “After ANT: Complexity, Naming and Topography.” In J. Law and J. Hassard, eds. Actor Network Theory and After. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1999, 1-14; and for his definition, see Law. “Actor-Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” in B. S. Turner, The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009, 141-158, at p. 142. I cannot attempt to address the often subtle differences between assemblage theorizing and ANT here.

[3] By my count, on the subject of the TSR2’s development, production, and cancellation, Law authored two book manuscripts, one of which was published, as well as five articles or chapters, three in co-authorship with Michel Callon. Here I draw on Law and Callon. “The Life and Death of an Aircraft: A Network Analysis of Technical Change.” In Wiebe Bijker and John Law, eds. Shaping Technology/Building society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992, 21-52; and Law. Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

[4] Law. Aircraft Stories: Ch. 9. Also: ANT is “grounded in empirical case studies.” Law. “Actor-Network Theory”: 141.

[5] ANT scholars might appreciate the fact that the name of the program is officially written as a proper noun (not “the Joint Strike Fighter”), which is broadly suggestive of an acting subject.

[6] Wilkerson, Lawrence B. “What Exactly is Jointness?” Joint Force Quarterly 16 (1997), 66-8.

[7] Sapolsky, Harvey M., Eugene Gholz, Caitlin Talmadge. US Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy. London and New York: Routledge, 2014: 137. Also see 37-9 and 114-6 for an institutional history and liberal critique of the “religion of jointness” and the consequent “cartelization of defense policy.”

[8] The multirole F-35 is designed to replace four or five aircraft in the U.S. military alone: the F-35A is intended to replace both the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt, the F-35B replaces the AV-8B Harrier II, and the F-35C takes over from the F/A-18 Hornet and possibly the Super Hornet as well.

[9] William Hartung, “Promising the Sky: Pork Barrel Politics and the F-35 Combat Aircraft,” Center for International Policy, January 2014.

[10] The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database regularly updates contributions by company Political Action Committees and individual lobbyists. For Lockheed Martin, see here. For the numbers on other F-35 contractors as well as the F-35 Caucus, see Hartung, “Promising the Sky.”

[11] For details, see, for example, Vucetic, Srdjan and Kim Richard Nossal. eds. “The International Politics of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter,” International Journal 68: 1 (2012-3).

[12] The Royal Air Force’s Panavia Tornado, for example, survived cuts in the 1970s only because it was a multinational program and the UK government did not wish to antagonize its West German partners. Sweetman, Ultimate Fighter: 20. Also see De Vore, Marc. “The Arms Collaboration Dilemma: Between Principal-Agent Dynamics and Collective Action Problems,” Security Studies 20:4 (2011), and Laguerre, Cédric and Marc DeVore. “F-35: Price and Prejudice,” Defense & Security Analysis 26 (2011).

[13] A third of NATO air forces wish to share the same burden: being there on the first day of attack, flying the same fighter as the Americans. See the partner country case studies in Vucetic and Nossal. eds. “The International Politics of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.”

[14] The idea of friends and allies collaborating on the F-35 “feels right”, but the practice of collaboration can, should and must be improved. This is one of the modal responses that emerged from 48 semi-structured interviews I conducted between June 2011 and January 2014 on the subject of the F-35 with industry, government and think tank representatives as well as academics and members of the media in Ottawa, Washington D.C. and at four international air shows. The majority of major contractors, defined as companies working on components specific to the F-35 as opposed general-use ones, appear to be located in Australia, Canada, Europe, and Israel. Hartung, “Promising the Sky”: 4.

Srdjan Vucetic is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottowa.


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One Response to “Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part I)”

  1. Srdjan Vucetic, why use numbers from 2010 ? The US GAO announced on March 31, 2014 that these numbers have come down.

    As reported by Reuters :

    The congressional watchdog agency said it now estimates the Pentagon will spend $332.3 billion over coming decades to develop the new radar-evading F-35 jet and buy a total of 2,457 aircraft, about 3.3 percent less than last year’s estimate.

    The GAO report said the cost to operate and maintain the aircraft is estimated at over $1 trillion over the next decades, but said those estimates may come down as testing progresses and more concrete information becomes available.

    The Pentagon’s F-35 program office estimates the overall cost of operating and maintaining the jets will be closer to $857 billion.