The famous phrase, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me” does not apply to the federal government. Or maybe it does, but officials don’t fully understand it—as was the case when President George W. Bush tried to use the reference in a 2002 speech. The saga of the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets is an example of Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon fooling Congress and the American people twice. Two generations of fighter jets creating two fiscal nightmares.
Last week’s piece exposed the procurement and subsequent sustainment catastrophe of Lockheed Martin’s 1991 F-22. The Pentagon irresponsibly mismanaged the contract and cost the American people billions of dollars; but in the case of the F-35, the blatant disregard for price will break the trillion-dollar barrier.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, Lockheed Martin was chosen in October of 2001 to develop a “family of conventional take-off and landing, carrier-capable, and short take-off vertical landing aircraft” in a project titled Joint Strike Fighter Program. The objective of the Department of Defense (DoD) was to replace a plethora of different types of aircraft with one “multi-role aircraft that can be produced in affordable variants to meet different operational requirements.” Ironically, in what seems to be a blatant and ungracious disregard for the American taxpayers, the program was justified by the word “affordable.” It should be said that just a few sentences earlier, the CRS report cited that the JSF is a “major issue in Congress because of concerns about its cost and budgetary impact.”
In reality, the F-35 is far from affordable. In a 2005 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the JSF Program had an estimated life cycle cost of $600 billion. In 2017, the GAO released a separate report, this time estimating the lifecycle cost to be almost double, $1.12 trillion. Titled “F-35 Aircraft Sustainment: DoD Needs to Address Challenges Affecting Readiness and Cost Transparency,” GAO concluded that the Department of Defense F-35 program is the “most expensive weapon system in history” and the costs are still rising, a major concern for GAO since they pointed out that the Pentagon doesn’t know what they are actually paying for. The contract negotiations have been riddled with inconsistencies, and the product has been so expensive that even foreign countries are taking notice.
The F-35 procurement started, and continues to be, an international endeavor. While the United States is the primary funder for the fighter jets, the United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Israel, Japan, and South Korea are all listed by Lockheed Martin as global partners. The cost of the procurement and sustainment of the aircraft has been heavily criticized by some of these partners.
A 2012 report from the Canadian public broadcasting network, CBC, expressed concern that the cost of the program has become so burdensome that countries are facing a choice: cut back on their orders, or cancel them entirely. The report also cited other nations like India, who passed on the F-35 and chose a cheaper Russian or French option instead. The entire debacle of the F-35 is yet another example of what the Canadian news agency reported as Pentagon recklessness, and an overzealous vision to control the stealth fighter jet market—actions that have embarrassed the United States on an international stage.
The corner-cutting might also lead to a massive cost burden in repairs. In a June 2018 report, GAO found that the DoD chose to willingly defer resolving “critical deficiencies” that were uncovered in testing until after the full-rate production decision is made in 2019. GAO recommended in their conclusion that Congress consider halting funds until the DoD supplies a sound business case, one that includes assessing deficiencies in the aircraft before entering into full-rate production. DoD did concur with GAO’s findings, but in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress ignored GAO’s recommendations. Not a single caveat was placed on the Pentagon’s contract negotiations for the F-35 to address deficiencies with the aircraft. In fact, in Division A, Title 1, Subtitle E, Sections 152, Congress authorizes additional procurement of more aircraft so long as there is no increase in authorized procurement funds—it mentions nothing of the cost to maintain extra aircraft in the future.
The F-35 has been a fiscal disaster of monumental proportion. Incredibly, after several reports from the Government Accountability Office, the DoD and Congress failed to put any stopgap measures on the inordinate spending. The cost of the aircraft is so obscenely high that even foreign countries are raising concern. Without an end in sight, the Joint Strike Fighter Program will bust the budget with over $1 trillion in spending, almost double the initial cost estimates made by GAO just 13 years ago. Even more disturbingly, with a lifecycle of 60 years, Pentagon officials and a group of 535 legislators are splurging with money that belongs to several generations of currently unborn Americans.
Unless this program is audited and the contract with Lockheed Martin negotiated, this weapon will symbolize damage and destruction, not on the battlefield, but on the American taxpayers. The adage says shame on the American people for being fooled again; but in reality, shame on Congress and the Pentagon for continuing to do the fooling.