By Paul Waldman
Yesterday in Fort Worth, officials from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin, and the Australian government gathered to celebrate the fact that two F-35 fighter jets bound for our ally down under were rolling off the assembly line. The news about this plane over the last few years has largely been buried on the inside pages of newspapers, but if you’d been following it you know that it has been one of the most remarkable boondoggles we’ve ever seen, not only the most expensive weapons system in history, but one that has been plagued by one disastrous problem after another (the latest of which came last month when an F-35 caught fire when taking off and the whole fleet of them were grounded).
The remarkable lack of interest in figuring out how things could have gone so wrong with this plane, especially from people who claim to be so desperately concerned about runaway government spending, tells you something about what a sham deficit hawkery really is.
As many have noted, when Republicans say they want to cut government spending, what they really mean is they want to cut spending on programs they don’t like. You can couch it in abstract principles about the size of government and the debt we bequeath to our children, but when it comes down to brass tacks, they like some things that government does (like military spending), and they don’t like other things that government does (like provide a social safety net), so they want to cut the latter but not the former.
Even so, it’s one thing to say, “Even though I’m deeply concerned about the deficit, this weapons system is so important to our security that I think it’s worthwhile to spend half a trillion dollars on it.” It’s something else to say, “We should spend half a trillion dollars on this weapons system, and not only do I not care how high costs spiral, I don’t really care whether it’s a piece of junk.” But that is, in effect, what most everyone in Congress has said about the F-35.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to extend American air superiority deep into the 21st century. The F-35 was designed to evade not just enemy fighters, but political accountability as well. Its subcontracts were spread out over 1,300 separate companies in 45 states, ensuring that members of Congress from throughout the land have an interest in keeping the project going. It’s an incredibly poor way to create jobs (depending on how you count, a single job supported by the F-35 costs the taxpayer as much as $8 million). We’ll spend around $400 billion to build the planes — nearly twice what the program was supposed to cost when it began. When this happens, nobody gets punished or held “accountable.” We just keep shoveling taxpayer money into the Lockheed coffers. And that doesn’t count the cost of repairing and maintaining the planes, which could push the cost past $1 trillion over time.
The problem is that the F-35 has been a disaster. Bursting into flames is just the latest mishap — it’s been so unreliable that at various points the planes have been forbidden from flying at night, or in the rain, or too fast, or too steep. There have been problems with hardware and software and everything in between.
Now it’s possible that eventually all that will be worked out, the planes will work reliably, and they’ll be ready for combat on schedule next summer. But given the F-35′s abysmal record and the spectacular amounts of taxpayer money being poured into it, you’d think all those deficit hawks in Congress, particularly on the Republican side, would have been holding investigations, demanding accountability, and threatening hell to pay if things didn’t get back on track.
But I guess not. After all, there weren’t any F-35s at Benghazi.