Once upon a time, there was a military program undertaken by the Department of Defense promising to refit the United States military with fighter jets including an “advanced airframe, autonomic logistics, avionics, propulsion systems, stealth, and firepower” while simultaneously promising to be the “most affordable, lethal, supportable and survivable aircraft ever to be used by so many warfighters across the globe.” All hallmarks of fifth-generation jet fighters, these features will be necessary for the United States to maintain its military edge in the air.
The program in question is, of course, none other than the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program. The tragic history of this project — which has ballooned from its original cost estimate of $233 billion to over $1 trillion — has produced a fresh tale of government waste and bureaucratic bloat.
Before I get into the outrage I feel as a budget hawk about the comically stupid excesses of the F-35 program, I want to frame this indignation with my general attitude towards defense spending as a defense hawk.
The Constitution is clear that the only mandatory function of the government to its people is to “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion.” In addition to being the only required government expense, strong defense spending is critical to ensure a competitive edge against growing threats to the United States and its interests around the world from malign actors like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. If Americans, our allies, and our broader foreign policy priorities are secured by a robust, wisely-spent defense budget, I say the return on investment from this spending comes back in spades.
That brings us to the matter of the F-35 program.
It would be both reasonable and — from a national defense perspective — proper to dedicate hefty federal appropriations if the F-35 was actually capable of the advances the program boasts. The program’s promise to deliver a next-generation fighter sounds great in isolation, but how would the fighter handle a real combat situation where the environment is uncontrolled and unpredictable? The short answer: Poorly.
In a news report from The Daily Beast, aptly titled “America Is Stuck With a $400 Billion Stealth Fighter That Can’t Fight,” author David Axe uncovered the astonishing detail that if the F-35 “has to climb at a steep angle in order to dodge an enemy attack, design flaws mean the plane might suddenly tumble out of control and crash.” As the Pentagon considers putting the aircraft into full production, this should be a glaring concern.
And the stealth fighter does not just fail at fighting. It also comes up short at stealth, a primary selling point for the entire project. Not only, as Axe’s exposé reveals, do the aforementioned speed restrictions make it “impossible for aviators to keep up with, or avoid, Russian and Chinese fighters flying faster than the speed of sound without any restrictions,” but a pilot traveling at too high a rate of speed runs the risk of stripping key stealth capabilities from the aircraft’s exterior.
To recap: the F-35 is a “state-of-the-art” stealth fighter that is only stealthy when it is slow-moving and only a fighter when it does not have to be in a bonafide combat situation. $1.5 trillion of taxpayer dollars well-spent!
The absurd nature of the F-35’s performance also serves as the perfect synecdoche for how government officials have been attempting to clean up the mess.
Bryan Berky has previously documented DoD complaints about facing “significant hurdles in obtaining cost data from [Lockheed Martin] for individual F-35 spare parts because the contracts have not been written to require those data from the outset of the program.” According to an inspector general report auditing the program, the DoD also never received requested “spare parts in accordance with contract requirements and paid performance incentive fees on the sustainment contracts based on inflated and unverified F‑35A aircraft availability hours.”
Put another way, the program might as well be running on autopilot while government officials struggle to conduct responsible oversight and police costs.
These damning reports expose the entire project as more of an airborne money pit than a military marvel. Few capture the outrage that ought to be felt by budget and defense hawks alike more than The Bulwark’s Jonathan V. Last, who reminds that “America has had technological air dominance for close to 80 years. We chose to hand this advantage away in exchange for fuzzy hopes for cost savings and the pacification of various bureaucratic power centers.”
All the promises of the F-35 being an affordable and advanced piece of military hardware can now be incontrovertibly viewed as bureaucratic happy talk meant to paper over the program’s myriad flaws and exorbitant cost overruns. In fact, these are the very reasons the late Senator John McCain gave to Pentagon overseers while skewering the entire project as a “scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”
No one would dare doubt Sen. McCain’s legacy of commitment to U.S. national security and global standing, and his simultaneous contempt for waste and inefficiency is a balance which lawmakers should strive to emulate.
Defense spending is a vital government expense, but that alone does not absolve government officials of their duty to ensure defense spending is approached with care and consideration. The F-35 program is a perfect example of how reckless spending crusades have the added disadvantage of leaving Americans less safe. To prevent future errors of this scale, defense hawks and budget hawks alike should learn to start worrying and hate the F-35 program.
America’s fiscal stability and military edge depend on it.