The worst atrocities, on the battlefield and in public policy, have been justified in the name of war. Even though the U.S. government had already spent more than $3 trillion to fight COVID-19, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan sailed through Congress and remains popular among voters, because lawmakers passed it under the guise of waging “a war with a virus.”
The same problem afflicts the Pentagon, which got bogged down 20 years ago — not on the battlefield, but in an endless weapons procurement process for the F-35 fighter.
The Department of Defense envisioned the F-35 as a groundbreaking new generation of radar-evading jet fighter — at the end of the Clinton administration. Lockheed Martin won the lucrative contract to produce three versions of the plane — one each for the Navy, U.S. Air Force, and Marine Corps — and replace a slew of older models. Yet the F-35 remains AWOL more than 20 years after beginning development.
Despite two decades of nonfeasance, the Defense Department remains inexplicably committed to a program that has an estimated price tag as large as the latest COVID-19 spending bill. Experts now believe the F-35 fighter has a life-cycle cost of $1.727 trillion — 73% higher than the already robust $1 trillion the Government Accountability Office estimated just six years ago. Flying the F-35 costs approximately $36,000 an hour. Policymakers must, of course, resort to guesswork, because nearly a third of existing F-35s cannot meet the mission-capable rate.
The contractor has responded to the F-35’s hundreds of potentially deadly glitches with all the taxpayer-subsidized efficiency characteristic of government. The F-35 ended 2019 with 873 hardware and software errors; one year later, it reported only 871.
Some errors seem tragicomic: For instance, The inaptly named F-35 Lightning II could not fly in lightning. Others are more serious. In 2019, the Pentagon classified 13 of those flaws as Category 1 deficiencies, “which may cause death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness; may cause loss or major damage to a weapon system; critically restricts the combat readiness capabilities of the using organization; or result in a production line stoppage.” Last year, 10 remained.
If the jet itself ever reaches final form, pilots currently lack the ability to test it. Producing a Joint Simulation Environment facility — which allows flyers to see how the plane performs under enemy fire — has taken as long as the production of the jet itself (although one facility hopefully broke ground last November). And industry insiders muse that the F-35 is already outdated technology.
The F-35’s never-ending story remains symbolic of the worst policies of the last 20 years: lack of oversight on defense issues and rewarding non-producers that are “too big to fail.” The jet, like the COVID-19 bill, came about during a time of war, when no one dared second-guess the requests of the Pentagon. Efforts to rein in contractors’ costs would cost lives, many said (not altogether without merit).
But the F-35 budget bloated on its own girth. Once the DoD had placed all its chips on the F-35 — and convinced eight other nations to share the costs with us — it could not cancel the arrangement. The F-35 became immune to cancellation, no matter how much money it cost taxpayers to fund its glacial growth.
What better symbol of a forever war than a forever weapons program?
The good news is the F-35, if not the nation’s misbegotten foreign adventurism, may be coming to an end. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said earlier this month that Congress should “cut our losses” on the failed program and start from scratch. The F-35 has existed for 20 years and failed to find a winning design. Cutting bait on the failed fighter, and assuring no boondoggle like this ever takes place again, is a program that should unite Americans of all backgrounds.
With our fiscal health in jeopardy, it’s time to fight a war on unnecessary spending.
Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is the Executive Editor at the Acton Institute and an Eastern Orthodox priest. His views are his own.