The F-35 program is a turning point in defense research, development and procurement.

During WWII, our military initially gave preference to the application of more armor to the areas of returning, combat aircraft that showed damage from flak. The mathematician Abraham Wald upturned this paradigm through his postulation that since the damage in downed aircraft could not be observed and the observed damage in returning aircraft was, perforce, tolerated, the areas that should be up-armored were the unmolested and not the damaged sections of returning planes.

Abraham Wald’s insight also pertains to negative space—what surrounds an object, which defines boundaries and illuminates the whole. Important issues in defense procurement should be considered and resolved through the assessment of current and past programs, including those that have been cancelled. Historical contexts must be examined. From this inquiry, a path forward may be suggested.

The story, therefore, of the epochal F-35 fighter program begins with the Edsel, though not in the colloquial meaning of the word. The story of the F-35 begins with the actual car named Edsel.

Before Robert McNamara become Secretary of Defense, he was the first president of the Ford Motor Company who did not bear that company’s name. Before McNamara’s ascension to the presidency of the company, five product divisions existed, Ford, Edsel, Mercury, Lincoln, and Continental.

McNamara, seeking efficiencies, merged the Continental division into Lincoln; he then sought to combine Edsel, Mercury, and Lincoln into one division. Finally, McNamara stripped the faltering Edsel division of its advertising budget, and then cancelled it outright. Ultimately, he sought to remake Ford such that it would have but one product line. This was not to be since McNamara was appointed Secretary of Defense before his reductive plan could be approved and implemented.

Within a month of his confirmation as Secretary of Defense, McNamara ordered the Navy and the Air Force to terminate their separate fighter development programs and to initiate a joint fighter program. With support from the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, McNamara exerted a commanding influence on service acquisition programs. From May 1961 to October 1965, Dr. Harold Brown served as Director of Defense Research and Engineering (Brown would later become Secretary of the Air Force under McNamara and, finally, Secretary of Defense under President Carter).

Thus, by the summer of 1961, the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX), which would become the F-111, was begun. McNamara’s obsession with commonality, caused his choosing the General Dynamics design over the superior Boeing proposal ─ a proposal that had, in fact, been selected by the Source Selection Board. McNamara’s selection was made on the basis of his giving more weight to commonality as the prime decision factor, for it was in this realm, and not in performance, that the General Dynamics design was putatively superior.

McNamara made his decision without consulting directly the Air Force Chief of Staff, Curtis LeMay, or the Chief of Naval Operations, George Anderson, who both favored the Boeing design. McNamara’s decision was tainted, too, by the specter of Texas election politics’ commandeering the prime-contractor decision. Though hearings held by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation of the Committee on Government Operations did not establish undue political pressure as the root of McNamara’s decision, it is inarguable that President Kennedy’s perceived political weaknesses in the South, his debt to Vice President Johnson for the delivery of Texas in the 1960 election, and General Dynamics’ financially ruinous development of the Convair 880 and 990 airliners, created a political environment supportive of McNamara’s decision.

As an unanticipated consequence of the F-111 program’s focus on commonality at the expense of performance, both the Navy and the U.K., once core participants, would drop out, though the Navy undertook extensive efforts to reduce the F-111B’s weight and the U.K. cancelled its own new strike aircraft, the TSR-2, due to U.S. pressure on the Macmillan government to adopt a British version of the F-111, the F-111K. In the case of Britain, the cancelation came hard upon near disastrous U.S.-U.K. bilateral decisions concerning defense, for Britain had cancelled both its Blue Steel II and Blue Streak strategic-missile programs in favor of the U.S. Skybolt missile, which, in turn, was cancelled by McNamara before deployment. Thus, America’s closest ally faced profound voids in its force structure ─ voids that were caused by the pursuit of commonalities at the expense of capabilities.

Indeed, McNamara’s pursuit of commonality was so absolute that he delayed for three years the Air Force’s 1965 production order for 93 F-12Bs (the production version of the YF-12A, an interceptor that was part of the Oxcart/Blackbird family of aircraft). McNamara then cancelled the F-12B and ordered, in 1968, that all Oxcart/Blackbird-associated specialized tooling be destroyed to obliterate any possible Air Force or Congressional gambit to build an aircraft with greater interception or strike ability than that possessed by the F-111. In this act, he mirrored the prior Canadian decision to destroy all CF-105 production tooling, after the termination of that advanced fighter program in favor of the purchase, from the United States, of less-capable F-101 fighters and nuclear-tipped Bomarc missiles that were subsequently stood-down.