Emotion, Not Logic, Will Sell the F-35

Erik Schechter's picture

It’s no secret that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a troubled program. Over the past 10 years, the price of Lockheed Martin’s cutting-edge stealth aircraft has shot up 64 percent, while sales projections have continued to slide. Indeed, foreign countries that once fell over themselves to join the multinational F-35 program are now showing far less enthusiasm for the $120-150 million plane.

This, together with production delays and questions about airframe reliability, has not escaped the notice of other defense companies. GE and Rolls-Royce, for instance, have given up their dream of selling DoD a second, backup engine for the F-35. And Boeing, sensing blood in the water, has recommended that the U.S. buy upgraded F-15 and F-18 fighters as a hedge against the risky JSF program.

Lockheed Martin will have a tough battle ahead keeping the Hill sold on the F-35 — especially in light of sequestration and fierce critics like Sen. John McCain. And while the standard PR approach would be to counsel Lockheed on building a reasonable case for the aircraft, logic is not on the side of the F-35. To keep the program alive, Lockheed will instead need to appeal to pure, raw emotion.

Why do we need the F-35? It’s a basic question, really. But it’s one that Lockheed cannot answer. First, it means identifying potential enemies and their threat level, and that is the job of the customer, not the contractor. Second, discussing military
needs would entail a messy debate over building fifth-generation fighters versus upgrading existing platforms, which plays right into the hands of Boeing.

Trying to justify the F-35 in terms of job creation is also a losing strategy. In a recent study, two political economists have argued that defense spending is actually a poor generator of highly skilled employment, so the matter is far from settled. Second, even if the argument were irrefutable, it could be used for any failed program, like the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter.

Ultimately, there is no cold, Vulcan logic hiding under the wings of the F-35. Instead, Lockheed should appeal to pure emotion, specifically to desire and ego.

You see, in the heart of every American man, there’s a boy who grew up on G.I. Joe, and that kid wants to see awesome, physics-defying aircraft in our arsenal. Lockheed should promise him total air supremacy. It should promise him a JSF that will drop enemy fighters like they were punks. It should promise a jet as cool as those Youtube clips with the A-10 spitting fire to the music of AC/DC.

At the same time, Lockheed should appeal to American pride. In the last decade, DoD has spent no less than $46 billion on 12 failed procurement programs. “Enough is enough,” the message should say. “We need to see the F-35 through. We can’t keep on starting ambitious programs and then cutting them once we get sticker shock.”  The message is as strong as it is emotional.

Grit and desire, they will help Lockheed sell the F-35.

A former defense tech and security affairs journalist, Schechter is an account supervisor at Spector & Associates. Previous experience includes time spent at the White House, Center for Strategic and International Studies, IDF Armored Corps and Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He can be reached at Erik@SpectorPR.com