Most taxpayers would agree, even if at times grudgingly, that the top priority for expenditure of federal dollars is our national defense, including the technology and hardware with which to win wars, that is, weapon systems. These priorities are funded according to an acquisition system as complex as it is costly, perhaps best illustrated by the $1.7 trillion F-35 “Lightning” fighter jet program that has been plagued by numerous delays and cost increases over the course of its two decade long development history.
Broadly considered, the process by which weapons systems are funded – including everything from four-wheel drive vehicles to massive aircraft carries capable of launching dozens of long-range fighter jets — is known as “weapon system acquisition.” It is a labyrinthine process that has more in common with a Rube Goldberg cartoon contraption than a well-oiled machine. The process is fully understood only by a tightly knit fraternity of current and former top-level Department of Defense officials, key Members of Congress and their staff, and the handful of major corporate defense contractors, the largest by far of which is Lockheed Martin.
As stated by the U.S. Department of Defense in a recent “Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System,” the goal of this crucial component of our national defense is simple: to ensure that the weapon systems available to and utilized by our men and women in uniform “are unmatched throughout the world, ensuring that U.S. military forces have the advantage over any adversary.”
Few objective observers would dispute the proposition that our fighting forces and global capabilities remain the best in the world. There is, however, considerable room to debate whether the actual weapons systems and related military technology in use currently and planned for the coming decades represents the most efficient and wisest use of taxpayer resources.
The F-35 was designed to meet the projected combat needs for all three branches of our military that deploy fighter aircraft – the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. The plane has shown itself capable of meeting those needs … when it works. Unfortunately, the F-35 has exhibited a continuing and costly series of deficiencies, from software and cybersecurity failures to structural cracks. These problems have not only swollen its per-unit cost to $110 million (and a total “lifetime” cost of more than $1.7 trillion), but have put its actual deployment far behind schedule.
There are questions about the aircraft’s capabilities even beyond the problems manifested during its lengthy development and initial deployment. For example, its hourly flight operating cost of $44,000 is double that of other jets already in the military’s arsenal, including the F-15, the F-16, and the F/A-18. More troubling from a tactical operating perspective, however, is the fact that each of these other combat jets (along with the F-22) has a higher effective operating range than the F-35, a crucial factor when providing extended air coverage for ground forces.
Not only has the plane failed to meet cost and delivery requirements, but its primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, has been able to secure additional taxpayer-funded contracts to correct those very deficiencies; in other words, to be paid more money to fix problems in its initial manufacturing processes.
Despite these costly and continuing problems, neither recent Congresses nor three successive administrations have bitten the bullet and taken steps to stanch the massive outflow of taxpayer dollars for the F-35 project. Recent congressional hearings have brought renewed attention to the issues, but nothing beyond talk has resulted.
Even as the F-35 program continues to bleed money and deliver ever so slowly on its promises, the Defense Department is making plans for the “Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)” fighter. Whether plans for the “sixth generation” fighter (the F-35 being the “fifth”) will result finally in scaling back the problem-plagued F-35 program, or if new contracts will be awarded on a more traditional and market-driven basis, remains to be seen; but if not, American taxpayers will be in for another, possibly more costly fleecing.