The Trump Administration recently unveiled its 2021 budget proposal, featuring some of the largest cuts to discretionary spending ever proposed by a White House. The budget was also the first of its kind to include a section on government waste and duplication—areas the president thinks should be cut or streamlined by Congress.
It’s an impressive effort by an administration whose suggestions are routinely ignored by the bipartisan group of spending profligates in Congress who have the power to decide where money gets spent.
But noticeably absent from anyone’s list of wasteful spending is the most expensive program in U.S. history: the F-35 fighter jet, which is expected to cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion over its 60-year lifespan.
The F-35 was envisioned as something of a “super jet” for the U.S. military, replacing the wide variety of U.S. combat aircraft with a single plane. But as it turns out, the entire project has been subject to one fairly self-evident problem: it’s really hard to make one plane that can do everything.
The Air Force wanted a stealthy plane. But the design that required didn’t please the Marines, who wanted internal weapons bays and a plane that had vertical takeoff capability. But all those features have weight components, which removed the stealth capacity considerably. As War is Boring blogger David Axe observed, the Marines wanted a fat plane, and the Air Force wanted a skinny one.
And that was just the beginning of the F-35’s very expensive challenges. During the F-35’s development, the Pentagon also got the very bright idea that it could keep costs down by producing the planes while at the same time conducting flight and ground tests. You can imagine how well this worked out. All the modifications that became necessary were far more expensive, because the planes were already built.
By 2006, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was sounding the alarm on the project’s massive cost overruns. By 2010, the cost per plane was now more than 89 percent over the baseline estimate and triggered a breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a law that forces the Pentagon and Congress to evaluate whether to cancel a troubled program.
But by then the F-35 program had buy-in from several countries, as well as a supplier base that extended across 45 states. One can only speculate whether the creation of this massive constituency was intentional by Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor with the F-35 contract. The result is that the project is now “too big to fail.”
In an interview with the New York Times, Christopher Bogdan, an Air Force lieutenant general who formerly managed the F-35 program, said he “had a sense, after my first 90 days, that the government was not in charge of the program,” and “that all major decisions . . . were really all being made by Lockheed Martin, and the program office was just kind of watching.”
All that money—which, by 2015, the Pentagon estimated had increased 43 percent from 2001—still wasn’t buying a functional fighter jet.
The F-35, designated as the F-35 Lightning II, couldn’t fly in thunderstorms because its lightning-protection system didn’t work. The jet’s helmet display, supposedly cutting edge, was dysfunctional. The plane’s ejection seat could seriously injure pilots under 135 pounds. And pilots were still training on software that only covered the basics because the more advanced training software was—surprise!—delayed.
After a series of public embarrassments and aggressive oversight by the late Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who called the program a “scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance,” the F-35 has slowly improved. The plane was declared “combat-capable” in 2017, though GAO analysis puts the F-35 fleet at operating costs 79 percent higher than the planes it is replacing.
But the cost to taxpayers does not stop now that the F-35 is (mostly) functional. The plane costs an average of $35,000 an hour to operate, roughly the cost of half a year’s tuition at Harvard. And now that the do-it-all plane has been built, it must be maintained. In January, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin $2.3 billion in contracts to do just that. That’s a lot of money for a defense contractor that has already made a lot of money for performing extremely poorly.
Conveniently for Lockheed—and inconveniently for the taxpayers—planned updates to the F-35 range are on the horizon, which has caused the project to balloon over-budget yet again, this time by $22 billion. The long-range cost for operating the fleet from 2011 to 2077 is now close to $2 trillion. The war blog “Task & Purpose” called the F-35 “the bottomless money pit from which there is no escape.”
In December 2016, then-president-elect Donald Trump declared the “F-35 program and cost is out of control.” He was right then and he is right now. The F-35 has been called the “unkillable program,” but if anyone can take a sledgehammer to swamp-dwelling immortals, it’s Donald Trump.