BY HAYES BROWN
Just days before its international debut at an airshow in the United Kingdom, the entire fleet of the Pentagon’s next generation fighter plane — known as the F-35 II Lightning, or the Joint Strike Fighter — has been grounded, highlighting just what a boondoggle the project has been. With the vast amounts spent so far on the aircraft, the United States could have worked wonders, including providing every homeless person in the U.S. a $600,000 home.
It’s hard to argue against the need to modernize aircraft used to defend the country and counter enemies overseas, especially if you’re a politician. But the Joint Strike Fighter program has been a mess almost since its inception, with massive cost overruns leading to its current acquisition price-tag of $398.6 billion — an increase of $7.4 billion since last year. That breaks down to costing about $49 billion per year since work began in 2006 and the project is seven years behind schedule. Over its life-cycle, estimated at about 55 years, operating and maintaining the F-35 fleet will cost the U.S. a little over $1 trillion. By contrast, the entirety of the Manhattan Project — which created the nuclear bomb from scratch — cost about $55 billion in today’s dollars.
“The political armor of the F-35 is as thick as the heads of the people who designed the airplane and its acquisition plan,” Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional staffer and outspoken critic of the F-35, recently told Foreign Policy about the longevity of the plane, despite the many setbacks it has endured. The support for the F-35 is so great in Congress that there’s actual a bipartisan Joint Strike Fighter Caucus dedicated to promoting it and keeping it alive. With that in mind, here are just a few of the other things that the insane amount spent on the troubled fighter could have gone towards instead, both at home and abroad:
Buying Every Homeless Person In The U.S. A Mansion
On any given night in 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development concluded, there were an estimated 600,000 homeless Americans living on the streets. Numerous studies, however, have showed that rather than putting money into temporary shelters or incarceration, communities have saved millions of dollars by investing in permanent homes for the homeless. A recent report showed that in one Florida community, it cost taxpayers an estimated $30,000 to take the homeless off the streets through traditional methods, but only around $10,000 per person to give them permanent housing and provide job training and other support. Expanding that concept to the Federal level, even taking into account things like varying real estate prices around the country, it’s possible that $7.4 billion would be more than enough to start a program nationwide. With the full amount spent on the F-35 at its disposal, the U.S. could afford to purchase every person on the streets a $664,000 home.
Unilaterally Funding Every Humanitarian Crisis
Overall, the United States less than one percent of its federal budget to foreign assistance. The State Department and USAID in Fiscal Year 2014 set aside about $31.1 billion in foreign aid funding, according to ForeignAssistance.gov. This includes $4.5 billion devoted towards funding the U.S. response to humanitarian crises around the world, including those in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and others. Millions of refugees and internally displaced people in these conflicts are struggling to survive, as the United Nations reports that each of these emergencies remain chronically underfunded. This year alone, the U.N. Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has raised only 35 percent of the funds it needs. In contrast, the $49 billion per year spent on the F-35 would singlehandedly fund not just UNOCHA’s $16.7 billion request, but also those of UNICEF and other emergency disaster relief bodies, saving countless lives.
In addition, U.N. officials want the situation at the U.S.’ southern border to be classified as a refugee crisis as well, as most of the thousands of children currently being detained fled their homes to escape a myriad number of life-threatening conditions. The Obama administration has requested $3.7 billion from Congress in emergency spending to help staunch the flow and provide for those who have already made it to the United States, but Republicans already appear to be lining up against the proposal. The F-35′s increased cost from last year alone would have easily covered that amount and then some.
Feeding Every Schoolchild In The Country
Earlier this year, President Obama signed into law an compromise version of the Farm Bill after months of deadlock saw the expiration of the former version. As part of the deal, House Republicans demanded huge cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), former known as food stamps, backing down only after a veto threat from the White House. The final bill, however, still included $8.7 billion worth of cuts, equaling about a $90 per month cut for recipients. The F-35′s excess costs for the last year by themselves could have nearly covered all of the losses, prevent state governors from having to scramble to provide families with the assistance they need.
As a backup when food subsidies are cut, low-income families often find themselves turning towards schools to provide meals during the day for their children. The National School Lunch Program feeds approximately 31 million students every year, at the cost of about $16.3 billion in both cash and commodity payments. The full cost of the plane so far would have funded this program as it stands for 24 years. If the amount being dispersed to schools was doubled, allowing the program to reach all 55 million students enrolled in K-12, the F-35 still would be able to cover that for the next decade.
Providing Security Around The World
Under the weighted system used to determine dues, the U.S. pays the lion’s share of funding to the United Nations’ 16 peacekeeping missions around the world. For the coming fiscal year, that works out to about $2.4 billion. That’s quite a bargain, as then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice argued in 2009, telling PBS: “If the US was to act on its own – unilaterally – and deploy its own forces in many of these countries; for every dollar that the US would spend, the UN can accomplish the Mission for twelve cents.” Given how cost effective blue helmets are at providing security in areas where conflict has just ended, it would behoove the U.S. to grant even more support to the system. Additional funds would provide better arms and equipment, as well as better training, as the number of peacekeepers required around the world increases. The amount the U.S. has spent on the F-35 could have funded this year’s level of peacekeeping — a record-high $8.6 billion — for the next 46 years.
Boosting Funding Needed To Rebuild America
The United States is falling apart. A lack of funding for bridges, roads, and other infrastructure has led to collapses across the country and the more than 63,000 bridges that have been labeled as “structurally deficient.” The Department of Transportation’s total budget request for next year is $90.1 billion, part of a four-year budget of $302.1 billion with $199 billion set aside to rebuild America’s roads and bridges. Obama has for the last two years called for a $50 billion lump sum to be added to the on top of DOT’s budget to help address the growing need, and twice Congress has rejected this proposal. If the U.S. were to have channeled the $298 billion is has spent so far on the F-35 — and continued spending at that level for the next six years — the U.S. would be halfway towards closing the $1.1 trillion gap in investment needed in infrastructure, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. In addition, a report from the Center for American Progress, citing Moody’s Analytic’s chief economist, estimates infrastructure investment generates $1.44 of economic activity for each $1 spent. That sort of claim can’t be duplicated in the spending on the F-35.
Along with the United States, seven other countries have committed to purchasing F-35 fighters from Lockheed Martin once they’re completed, which is helping diffuse the costs for the American taxpayer. But these partners are growing increasingly wary of the aircraft’s ballooning price. Australia recently announced that it was scaling back its purchase, as has the Netherlands. Those concerns will likely only be compounded by the current grounding of the fleet. And so, though the British Air Force intended to have the fighter in service a full two years ago, the only place you’ll be able to see the F-35 in action for now remains on the big screen — where its successes have been about equal to those in real life.