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Daniel Ruth: The F-35 is a turkey ... when it actually flies

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Daniel Ruth is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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By Daniel Ruth
Tampa Bay Times

Saturday, December 2, 2017

If this had been a slightly addled elderly man at the end of the bar deep into his third martini pontificating about America’s latest newfangled secret weapon – an invisible jet fighter instilling fear into our evildoing enemies – well, you could simply buy him another round and sit back to enjoy the absurdity of it all.

Alas, however, this was President Donald Trump a few days ago telling a captive audience of U.S. Coast Guardsmen: “Do you like the F-35? I said how does it do in fights, and how do they do in fights with the F-35? He said they do very well, you can’t see it. Literally you can’t see. It’s hard to fight a plane you can’t see, right?”

Just who was telling the president of the country that the armed forces were equipped with an invisible plane isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps the leader of the Free World had just heard about how Wonder Woman can zip about in her transparent flying machine.

Indeed Trump went on to brag, “How good is it? Well it wins every time because the enemy cannot see it, even if it is right next to it, it can’t see it. I said that helps, that’s a good thing.”

Yes, very helpful.

Stretching the president’s credulity to the extreme edges of The Twilight Zone, you could say he was correct in asserting the F-35 is indeed capable of being unseen to the naked eye, since it has never so much as cast a condescending sneer in the general direction of any enemy, not even those malcontents causing mischief in Freedonia.

Nearly 20 years in development, the F-35 has managed to carpet-bomb the federal budget. To date, the Pentagon’s answer to the Yugo of weapons systems has cost at least $406 billion – and growing. The Government Accountability Office estimates the F-35 will cost about $1.4 trillion over the life of the program. And let’s face it, at the Defense Department boondoggles like the F-35 are immortal.

The F-35 has never lost a fight, because it’s never been in a fight, unless you count the mock dogfights the plane has had and lost with the F-16, the very aircraft it is supposed to replace.

Or perhaps think of the F-35 as the world’s most sophisticated conscientious objector.

A single copy of a F-35 costs about $100 million. However, during its very long, plagued development the aircraft’s much-vaunted $400,000 pilot’s helmet was discovered to be unable to discern friend from foe, which might seem to be sort of important.

Last year, the Pentagon announced the F-35 had finally reached “initial operational capability,” which would seem to be general-speak for the F-35 is now able to confront foes by asking if they have Prince Albert in a can.

But perhaps the most damning indictment of the F-35 was the acknowledgement by the Pentagon that Chinese hackers may have compromised some 8 million lines of the plane’s software codes.

Nearly 20 years. Some $406 million. Another $1.4 trillion yet to go. And at the end of the day, it is conceivable the F-35 could be defeated, not in an aerial confrontation with another fighter jet, but by a 14-year-old sitting with his laptop in Beijing.

Still, production of the F-35 continues unabated, largely because its lucrative Defense Department costs have been spread out over at least 45 states employing about 133,000 people. According to the American Conservative, in Florida alone it is estimated the F-35, which has yet to even make an obscene hand gesture aimed at an adversary, accounts for about 18,000 jobs across some 98 suppliers generating $2 billion in economic impact -- all in the service of building the Rube Goldberg machine of weapons. Who would want to kill such a golden albatross? This is a bipartisan embarrassment. Yet the Trump administration wants to slash food stamp programs?

More vexing is that the commander in chief appears to be oblivious about the F-35’s complete lack of combat history, or to even grasp the fact it is hardly invisible. It’s entirely possible a Coast Guard boatswain’s mate trapped in the president’s preening photo-op knows more about the F-35’s shortcomings than the very man who has the ultimate power to send him or her into harm’s way.

But that hasn’t prevented Trump from waxing poetic about the F-35.

What’s next? The commander in chief singing the praises of the Marine Corps’ Jedi warrior light sabers? They’re fabulous, you know.

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