In the past few decades, the U.S. Air Force has spent untold billions researching and developing a family of stealth fighter jets that are supposed to be generations ahead of any dogfighters in the sky.
But after building more than 170 F-22 Raptors and a handful of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, not a single one is available for service. The Air Force currently has zero flyable stealth fighters. None. What happened?
The vaunted F-22 has been grounded with a possible faulty oxygen system since May. Production of the last few Raptors is even on hold, because the jets can't fly from the factory.
Last week, test flights for the newer F-35 were suspended, too, because of a valve problem in the plane's integrated power package. It's the third time this year that JSFs have been forbidden to fly. Ground tests have resumed, and flight tests may resume as early as next week. Then again, they may not.
Yesterday, the U.S. military committed to spending another $535 million to buy 38 more Joint Strike Fighters - a family of stealth jets that are supposed to become the multipurpose, affordable workhorses of tomorrow's fleet. Ninety percent of America's combat aviation power is eventually supposed to come from the jets' three variants.
But the jets have been anything but cheap. The current cost for the JSF program is $382 billion and rising for more than 2,400 aircraft. No wonder just about every major deficit reduction plan scales back the JSF effort in some way.
And, at the moment, they're not producing any combat power, either.
Back in 2002, the plan was to have more than 90 JSFs flying by next year. As things currently stand, the Air Force and Navy might not get their variants until 2016. The Marines - who knows?
For now, every available penny in the JSF program is tied up in getting the jets back into the air and their programs on track.
"The so-called ‘fifth-generation' fighters have certainly revolutionized U.S. air power," Ares' Bill Sweetman noted, "if not quite in the way anyone had in mind."
This story originally appeared on Wired.com's Danger Room on Aug. 9, 2011, and was republished with permission.
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