Issues & Insights

Is The F-35 Jet Fighter Worth The Money?

Lockheed's F35 Fighter Jet. Image by DiGiFX Media from Pixabay, licensed under Pixabay license (https://pixabay.com/service/license/).

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.

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3 comments

  • Excellent article that articulates what we have all known for years now. The F-35 is a boondoggle and reflects putting lipstick on a pig is just a pig with lipstick.

  • USA won the Cold War by inducing Soviet Union to spend huge sums on military programs, destroying their economy and popular support for their ‘leadership’. As wasteful as some of our projects are, our quasi-capitalist system is still much more efficient than Russian or Chinese central planning.

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