It is also one of the most problematic. Years behind schedule, the problem-plagued plane's costs have doubled since 2001 to nearly $400 billion, and the software necessary to take it to war in the 21st century remains in development, Time reports.
As budget cuts to the Department of Defense loomed large and as new deadlines rapidly approached, the Pentagon "repeatedly waived laws banning Chinese-built components on U.S. weapons in order to keep the... Lockheed Martin Corp... fighter program on track in 2012 and 2013, even as U.S. officials were voicing concern about China's espionage and military buildup," Reuters recently reported in an exclusive story.
That the United States uses parts made abroad in its weapons systems is not a new concept; far from it, in fact. The World War II-era days of building all of our weapons systems domestically are over. Globalization of production and foreign direct investment by multinational corporations based in the U.S. and elsewhere have made the manufacture and purchase of key weapons components much cheaper (and, in some cases, much higher quality) than buying/developing them domestically.
'It was a pretty big deal'
That being said, however, U.S. lawmakers and key defense industries are acutely aware that some great powers represent a threat to U.S. foreign policy objectives and could, at some point in the future, directly challenge U.S. supremacy in key corners of the world, thereby threatening vital American strategic and economic interests.
China is one such nation - hence the restrictions on using Chinese firms for American weapons systems. But apparently, in an effort to meet increasingly stringent deadlines and curb costs, the Pentagon took some liberties with the law and some production shortcuts when it decided to purchase parts from banned Chinese companies:
According to Pentagon documents reviewed by Reuters, chief U.S. arms buyer Frank Kendall allowed two F-35 suppliers, Northrop Grumman Corp and Honeywell International Inc, to use Chinese magnets for the new warplane's radar system, landing gears and other hardware. Without the waivers, both companies could have faced sanctions for violating federal law and the F-35 program could have faced further delays.
"It was a pretty big deal and an unusual situation because there's a prohibition on doing defense work in China, even if it's inadvertent," Frank Kenlon, who recently retired as a senior Pentagon procurement official and now teaches at American University, told the newswire service. "I'd never seen this happen before."
According to the report, the Government Accountability Office - Congress' investigative arm - is currently examining three cases involving the production and ongoing development of the F-35, which is planned as the U.S. military's next-generation fighter and one that will be distributed across all service branches that employ air power:
The GAO report, due March 1, was ordered by U.S. lawmakers, who say they are concerned that Americans [sic] firms are being shut out of the specialty metals market, and that a U.S. weapon system may become dependent on parts made by a potential future adversary.
The parts involved are inexpensive: $2 magnets that have been installed on 115 test, training and production F-35s, the last of which are expected to be delivered in May of this year. What's more, some lawmakers have acknowledged that several U.S. companies make similar magnets, Reuters reported.
Most expensive weapons program at risk
But concerns about production - and dwindling funding - won the day:
Kendall said the waivers were needed to keep production, testing and training of the Pentagon's newest warplane on track; avert millions of dollars in retrofit costs; and prevent delays in the Marine Corps' plan to start using the jets in combat from mid-2015, according to the documents. In 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, the documents indicate.
And there is this: The U.S. is not simply building the fighters for the American military. Air forces in several other countries that helped fund development of the plane - Britain, Canada, Australia, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Denmark and the Netherlands - have potentially been put at risk (Japan and Israel have also placed F-35 orders).
It's unclear whether the use of these Chinese magnets threaten the overall stability of the F-35 program, and whether they, rather than American-made replacements, are ultimately going to be more effective.
But what is clear is this: The Pentagon may have endangered the most expensive weapon system ever devised over something as cheap as $2 magnets, and over something as easily fixed as moving a deadline.
Had the problem been adequately laid out and explained to the proper decision makers, it's hard to fathom that they would have chosen to do what the Pentagon ultimately decided.