The F-35: A Weapon That Costs More Than Australia

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The U.S. will ultimately spend $1 trillion for these fighter planes. Where's the outrage over Washington's culture of waste?

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The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is an impressive aircraft: a fifth generation multirole fighter plane with stealth technology. It's also a symbol of everything that's wrong with defense spending in America.

In a rational world, U.S. military expenditure would focus on the likely threats that the United States faces today and in the future. And at a time of mounting national debt, the Tea Party would be knocking down the Pentagon's door to cut waste.

But the only tea party in sight is the one overseen by the Mad Hatter, as we head down the rabbit hole into the military industrial wonderland.

The F-35 is designed to be the core tactical fighter aircraft for the U.S. military, with three versions for the Air Force, Navy, and the Marine Corps. Each plane clocks in at around $90 million.

In a decade's time, the United States plans to have 15 times as many modern fighters as China, and 20 times as many as Russia.

So, how many F-35s do we need?

100?

500?

Washington intends to buy 2,443, at a price tag of $382 billion.

Add in the $650 billion that the Government Accountability Office estimates is needed to operate and maintain the aircraft, and the total cost reaches a staggering $1 trillion.

In other words, we're spending more on this plane than Australia's entire GDP ($924 billion).

The F-35 is the most expensive defense program in history, and reveals massive cost overruns, a lack of clear strategic thought, and a culture in Washington that encourages incredible waste.

Money is pouring into the F-35 vortex. In 2010, Pentagon officials found that the cost of each plane had soared by over 50 percent above the original projections. The program has fallen years behind schedule, causing billions of dollars of additional expense, and won't be ready until 2016. An internal Pentagon report concluded that: "affordability is no longer embraced as a core pillar."

In January 2011, even Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a champion of the aircraft, voiced his frustration: "The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of restraint."

The F-35 is meant to be the future of U.S. tactical airpower, but the program harks back to the Cold War, when we faced an aggressive great power rival.

The world has changed. The odds of great power war have declined dramatically. We still need a deterrent capacity against China and Russia, but how much is enough? In a decade's time, the United States plans to have 15 times as many modern fighters as China, and 20 times as many as Russia.

Meanwhile, new challenges and threats have emerged. We should be focusing our military spending on the types of campaigns that we're actually likely to face: complex asymmetric wars against weaker opponents, where manpower and intelligence are critical.

And it's hard to square the military largesse with our rampant debt. Republicans want to slash billions from programs like early education, in Representative Jeb Hensarling's words, to "save our children from bankruptcy."

So where is the outrage at the F-35's outlandish cost?

Some just don't seem to care. When it comes to defense, Republicans are the champions of big government and massive expenditure. The F-35 is too big to fail.

At the same time, many Democrats keep quiet for fear of looking weak on defense--unless, like Senator Bernie Sanders, they're from Vermont.

Other politicians are bought off with pork. Defense suppliers are spread throughout dozens of states, giving everyone a reason to look the other way.

Any serious effort to balance the federal budget will require significant cuts in defense spending. And the F-35 is a prime target.

The 2010 bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission on deficit reduction suggested canceling the Marine Corps's version of the F-35, and halving the number of F-35s for the Air Force and Navy--replacing them with current generation F-16s, which cost one-third as much. This would save close to $30 billion from 2011 to 2015.

The plan went nowhere.

We used to be content to outspend Australia on aircraft. Now we literally spend Australia on aircraft.

Photo: Reuters/Ho New

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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