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Stop Overspending on the F-35

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

In some ways you cannot blame members of Congress for spending other people’s money. In their minds profligate spending is better than the alternative, working for a living. 

Just months ago, for example, lawmakers were about to run up against a debt ceiling. They simply agreed to remove any such ceiling and self-imposed budget caps. That allowed them to borrow and spend an additional $300 billion over the next two years. Problem solved (or at least passed on to future generations).

They seem to be doing something similar in defense policy.

Our military needs the best weapons system if it’s going to protect us from enemies and potential enemies. So lawmakers seem determined to accomplish that by spending far more than expected. For example, in July, National Defense Magazine reported that: “The fiscal year 2020 national defense authorization bill approved June 27 by the GOP-controlled Senate would authorize $10 billion to procure 94 F-35 joint strike fighters, 16 more than the Trump administration requested.”

That bigger than planned purchase is a big mistake.

The F-35 is already an expensive failure. After decades in development and procurement, it isn’t yet (and may never be) an effective fighting weapon. When Defense News reported in April that: “The U.S. Air Force has finally flown its variant of the F-35 in combat, using two of the aircraft to take out an ISIS tunnel network and weapons cache in Iraq on April 30,” it was describing what soldiers call a “milk run,” an impossible-to-fail test. 

Think of what that mission actually accomplished: it sure seems as if the U.S. paid more than $1.1 trillion to blow up a pile of hand grenades. Bloomberg says the F-35s will cost that much to develop, deploy and maintain over their lifetime. And that’s hardly the top-line number, because the total cost keeps rising. It jumped $22 billion just this year. And reports indicate that the jet still doesn’t deliver.

“They were expecting a fully functional jet in 2012,” a Pentagon insider told Vanity Fair. “But the only military mission these planes can execute is a kamikaze one. They can’t drop a single live bomb on a target, can’t do any fighter engagements. There are limitations on Instrument Flight Rules—what’s required to take an airplane into bad weather and to fly at night.” He adds the F-35 is less useful in bad weather conditions than a $60,000 Cessna would be.

The F-35 struggles to even make it into the air. Because of poor inventory management by its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, it can be grounded when it reaches a new base. A report cited by Aviation Week noted that these IT challenges “delay the unit’s ability to start generating sorties. Often, the timeframe to start flight operation is longer than that with legacy aircraft.” And as noted above, it’s not yet being used in true combat situations.

Huge price tags can almost be overlooked if the product performs. Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, though expensive, delivered on the air dominance needed by the U.S. military. Indeed, the successful Raptor was killed by the same bureaucratic nonsense that continues to throw good money after bad in the continuation of the F-35 program. 

If lawmakers want to deploy an effective weapon instead of throwing money away on a failed one, they might consider a platform that’s already operating successfully. 

When the Air Force started flying deterrence missions against Iran this spring, it rolled out F-15 Eagles, backed by KC-135 tankers. It’s no wonder the Air Force is looking to buy about 130 of the next generation F-15X, since that plane delivers what it promises. At the same time, these planes would cost far less than the failing F-35. Though Congress might not care about being good stewards of the people’s money, the taxpayers surely will. 

All bills eventually come due, and lawmakers are going to need, eventually, to focus their spending on effective programs that deliver bang for the buck. They’d be wise to start with spending a bit more on the F-15, and far less on the F-35. Future generations of American would voters might thank them for it.

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