Can Tom Cruise Save the Weapon that Costs More Than Australia?

The actor will fly the embattled F-35 in the new sequel to 'Top Gun.'

Paramount

Only one man can rehabilitate the tarnished image of the F-35 warplane, and he goes by the name of Maverick.

The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in history with projected lifetime costs of one trillion dollars--or more than Australia's entire GDP. The program has been plagued by so many cost overruns and delays that the Economist warned of a possible "death spiral."

For budget hawks, the F-35 program is a target rich environment. The 2010 bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission on deficit reduction suggested halving the number of F-35s for the Air Force and Navy and replacing them with F-16s and F-18s, which would save close to $30 billion from 2011 to 2015.

The magazine Foreign Policy recently asked experts to name defense programs that should be axed, and the top choice by far was the F-35. As one expert put it: "We have had only one fighter jet shot down by an enemy fighter jet in the last 40 years. We simply don't need to spend over a trillion on a new fighter at this point."

There's something appropriate about remaking a Cold War era movie to sell the F-35.

But the military-industrial complex has an ace card ready. Tom Burbage, the F-35 program manager at Lockheed Martin, recently revealed that Tom Cruise has signed up to play Maverick in the sequel to Top Gun--and this time, he'll be a test pilot for the F-35.

The original Top Gun, released in 1986, proved to be effective propaganda for the Navy. After the movie came out, the number of enlistees that wanted to be naval aviators spiked by 500 percent. Paramount offered to include a 90 second Navy advertisement at the start of the videocassette, but the Pentagon declined: "to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant."

There's something appropriate about remaking a Cold War era movie to sell the F-35. This is a plane designed for battling a great power rival like the Soviet Union or China--a scenario that made more sense thirty years ago than in the new era of asymmetric threats.

Who will Maverick fight exactly in the new movie? Dueling the North Korean air force won't provide much competition. Pyongyang's fleet of obsolete aircraft would struggle to establish air superiority over the Wright brothers.

Perhaps, instead, Cruise could spend the movie trying to fix some of the multiple technical problems with the F-35, like a helmet mounted display system that doesn't work properly--all to a montage of Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone."

The F-35 is a throwback in a still more fundamental way. The future of air warfare lies with unmanned drones, which are cheaper and can fly longer. The F-35 will probably be the last manned strike fighter the United States ever builds.

To rehabilitate the image of the F-35, Cruise will have to hit the afterburners. This plane has lost that loving feeling.

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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