The $1.45 trillion reason we can’t have nice things

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta addresses the F-35 Integrated Test Force personnel at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland January 20, 2012. Pentagon boondoggles are a dime a dozen—or more accurately trillions of dollars a dozen—but this one is king. The shiny new F-35 Lockheed fighter jet was estimated to cost $1.45 trillion in its lifetime back in 2012. After 14 years in development, the fighter is ready to be deployed say the Marines. The problem is, say the Marines themselves, it’s maybe not so ready for prime time. [T]he plane will still not have a functional Gatling gun to protect ground troops until 2019. The Marines themselves have admitted that the plane’s sensor, communication, and night vision systems are also not up to the standards they set. A report [PDF] from the Department of Defense’s Director for Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) paints a gloomy picture of the F-35’s current state of readiness. A review from the Project on Government Oversight concluded that the report showed “the old problems are not going away, new issues are arising, and some problems may be getting worse.” But, hey, let’s keep on flushing those trillions down the toilet, because someday all these systems will be ironed out and functioning. Then the only problem we’ll have is that the F-35 isn’t designed to actually perform the kinds of missions the planes it’s replacing conduct. The National Security Network just completed a comprehensive review [pdf] of the plane, finding that “it would be unsound to maintain a full-scale commitment to the F-35 program and that alternatives to the full program should be studied and, ultimately, selected.” To perform against near-peer adversaries, the F-35 will have to be capable of executing a range of missions, from defeating enemy aircraft to penetrating enemy air defenses to strike surface targets. But the F-35 will struggle to effectively perform these missions due to shortcomings in its design and program requirements, despite costing between three and nine times more than the 4th-generation aircraft it is designed to replace. The F-35 will find itself outmaneuvered, outgunned, out of range, and visible to enemy sensors. Going forward, full investment in the F-35 would be to place a bad trillion-dollar bet on the future of airpower based on flawed assumptions and an underperforming aircraft. To avoid such a catastrophic outcome, Congress and DOD should begin the process of considering alternatives to a large-scale commitment to the F-35. Staying the present course may needlessly gamble away a sizable margin of American airpower at great expense and unnecessary risk to American lives. [emphasis added] The F-35 is designed for the kind of warfare we haven’t done in decades—dogfights against “near-peer” adversaries. In other words, China or Russia. But its flaws mean that it can’t even do what it is supposedly designed for (which we don’t do anymore, anyway). It doesn’t give us any heightened capability in fighting what’s the new and most likely persisting threat, non-state terrorist groups like ISIS. If anything, it’s diverting resources from figuring out how best to combat those threats. Or, hell, the threat of global warming. Imagine what $1.45 trillion could do in the coming decades to combat that. Or to give everybody health care. Or not gut Medicare or Social Security. If we had a Congress worth a damn, the F-35 debacle wouldn’t be happening. But since Lockheed very smartly spread production out over 45 states, don’t expect them to do anything about it. In 2013, there were some 133,000 U.S. jobs devoted to constructing the plane. Of course, the $1.45 trillion the plane will cost in its lifetime could go a long way to creating jobs making things that actually work the way they are supposed to.


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