By Nan Swift
Just in time for Friday’s sequester deadline, the F-35 fighter jet is back in the news to remind us that yes, Virginia, there is room to pare back the Pentagon budget. Last week’s grounding of the entire fleet, due to a cracked engine blade, was the second time in two months that flight operations have been suspended and was well-timed with a major Time Magazine article lambasting “the most expensive weapon ever built.” While NTU has long voiced concerns over several aspects of the extremely costly and extremely troubled aircraft, it’s about time others start to take notice of how the Pentagon is wasting taxpayer funds on this boondoggle.
Born out of the Joint Strike Fighter program in the late nineties, Time explains that over the past decade the F-35’s price tag has doubled to $396 billion, the program has been beset with one delay after another, and still:
Its pilots’ helmets are plagued with problems, it hasn’t yet dropped or fired weapons, and the software it requires to go to war remains on the drawing board.
The article goes on to describe how taxpayer funds have been abused and wasted at almost every step of the way:
It opted to build three versions of a single plane averaging $160 million each (challenge No. 1), agreed that the planes should be able to perform multiple missions (challenge No. 2), then started rolling them off the assembly line while the blueprints were still in flux–more than a decade before critical developmental testing was finished (challenge No. 3). The military has already spent $373 million to fix planes already bought; the ultimate repair bill for imperfect planes has been estimated at close to $8 billion.
Back in 2002, Edward Aldridge, then the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said the F-35 was ‘setting new standards for technological advances’ and ‘rewriting the books on acquisition and business practices.’ His successor voiced a different opinion last year. ‘This will make a headline if I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway,’ Frank Kendall said. ‘Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done.’
The Pentagon and its allies say the need for the F-35 was so dire that the plane had to be built as it was being designed. (More than a decade into its development, blueprints are changing about 10 times a day, seven days a week.)
It would be easy to think that after so many years and so much money taxpayers will have a truly cutting-edge weapon at the end of the day. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth:
Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, the bible of the aerospace industry and a traditional supporter, published an editorial last fall that declared the program ‘already a failure’ on cost and schedule and said ‘the jury is still out’ on its capabilities.
J. Michael Gilmore, Christie’s successor as the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, reported in January that all three versions will be slower and less maneuverable than projected. Weight-saving efforts have made the plane 25% more vulnerable to fire. Only one of three F-35s flown by the U.S. military, he added, was ready to fly between March and October.
The increasing costs of the F-35 are even starting to give our allies second thoughts regarding their planned purchases of the jet. Recently, Canada announced it was reviewing plans to buy 65 F-35s – both due to the cost and potential refueling problems with the aircraft itself. Australia and Great Britain are also reconsidering their orders, while Italy has gone ahead with cuts.
So how did taxpayers get stuck with this high-tech albatross that is seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over initial cost estimates? Bloomberg.com sums this up:
It is also the defense project too big to kill. The F-35 funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs — and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed. The F-35 is an example of how large weapons programs can plow ahead amid questions about their strategic necessity and their failure to arrive on time and on budget.
Only a few years ago, taxpayers were asked to bail out private institutions because they were “too big to fail.” Now, even as we face record debt and politicians crisscross the nation wringing their hands over a mere 2.4 percent pullback in total expenditures that they are certain will doom us all, taxpayers are being forced to continue footing the bill for “too big to kill.”
Buying into the sunken-cost fallacy – throwing good money after bad – is not a path to sound policy, or a strong defense for that matter. Billions of dollars have been wasted that could have been allocated to other successful military programs, to modernization, or even to finally auditing the Pentagon (a small investment of taxpayer money that could yield big returns).
Sadly, it looks like the F-35 will continue to be with us for now:
But thanks to $4.8 billion in Pentagon contracts for 31 planes pushed out the door barely 100 hours before the original Jan. 2 sequestration deadline, much of the program will continue on autopilot.
But it does help make the point that as the “dreaded” sequester looms Pentagon spending should be on the table, because there’s plenty of room for savings. The Cato Institute has an excellent graphic here that helps to put the sequester in perspective, explaining that the coming cuts will only take us back to 2006 defense spending levels, which is still more than $100 billion over what we were spending during the Cold War. And while the sequester does call for some immediate short-term cuts in spending, military expenditures are projected to continue rising, albeit not as quickly, as we go forward.
That fact, more than the small chunk of spending restraint taxpayers get from the sequester, should strike fear in your wallet. The sequester is an important first step, but without other tough decisions and serious reforms, we still have an out-of-control spending situation on our hands. At the end of the day, as NTU Taxpayers’ Friend Award winner Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI) stated, “We’re bankrupting our country, and it’s going to put us in danger.”