Last week, the Marines declared that their version of the Joint Strike Fighter had achieved an initial operational capability (IOC)—seven years later than when originally announced in 2001. The F-35B’s IOC is the first for the controversial multiservice aircraft program. According to a report in Defense News, for those close to the program, it was a moment for celebration. Others, such as Senator John McCain—chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a leading critic of the F-35—were more circumspect. Citing the tremendous cost of the program, McCain said, “We must learn from past failures to ensure American aviators can safely and effectively perform their missions, and that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently.”

The lesson of the F-35 program’s failures seems obvious though: do not attempt joint aircraft development. And it’s a lesson that should have been evident before the Joint Strike Fighter program began.

The F-35 is not the first attempt at joint aircraft development. In the 1960s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara began the trend with the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program, later known as the F-111. As air power historian Richard Hallion notes,

Justified on the grounds of saving approximately $1 billion, the TFX/F-111 program eventually generated a loss of about the same amount. Though much has been written of the civilian-versus-military nature of decision making on the program, the critical point too often ignored in discussions of the TFX/F-111 experience was the basic incompatibility of developing a single common airframe to undertake widely differing Air Force and Navy missions. [Emphasis in the original.]

As discussed here ad nauseum, the military services have different aviation concepts and, moreover, differing ways of viewing the world. It is easy for them to agree when a program is on the drawing board. The services want approval for the program to start. Therefore, disputes over potentially differing visions of the finished product are ignored in favor of promises that a multiservice program will deliver economies of scale that will generate savings. It is only after the fact that costs go up as the aircraft is adapted to each service’s individual needs. By that point, Congress has bought into the program—ensuring that it continues even as the promised economies of scale disappear.

Hallion argues that the logic behind McNamara’s attempt to achieve savings through “commonality” was sound, but the approach was misguided. When the failure of the TFX program forced the Air Force to modify versions of the Navy’s F-4 and A-7 aircraft for its own use, the results were much better. The failure also spurred the Air Force to improve its own development program. The Air Force was not pleased with having to accept Navy planes after the F-111 debacle. Fearing it might be saddled with another Navy aircraft in the 1970s—this time, the F-14—the Air Force developed a new fighter. That fighter, the F-16, is still in service today and just happened to best the F-35 in an air-to-air combat simulation earlier this year.