One bold plan might be for President Barack Obama or Republican rival Mitt Romney to commit the Pentagon to competing the purchase of its next 300 fighters. It would shake things up, although it is questionable the Pentagon could stage a meaningful competition between the F-35 with its estimated costs and promised abilities and the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 with known costs and available capabilities. And the value of new tails must be balanced against the impact of reducing F-35 procurement, potentially causing partners to defect, production rates to drop and costs to soar.
But complexity is no excuse for inaction. The Pentagon has begun to act by acknowledging there is a problem and publicly increasing pressure to perform. Step 2, also underway, is to gauge the severity of the problem and come to realistic acquisition and operating cost projections so the U.S. and its partners can decide what they can afford.
There must be a hedge against further problems. The U.S. should keep producing F/A-18s for the Navy, upgrading F-16s for the Air Force and promoting the F-15 and F-16 internationally so a fallback option remains open. Then, the Defense Department must revisit how to evolve tactical aviation through the 2020s and sustain the industrial base to keep competition alive for the next fighter.
The F-35's problems could provide an opportunity to adjust military plans to the new capabilities and realities that have emerged since 2001. Instead of the smooth transition to the fifth-generation fighter force envisioned then, the turbulent, mixed-fleet 2020s could bring a reason to rethink. Some military leaders already say U.S. relies too much on stealth—a technology China is moving rapidly to match. There is nothing to say the U.S. must wait beyond 2030 for the next fighter, or to introduce competition for the F-35.