The F-35, the great white whale of defense waste

Ross Marchand

November 16, 2018

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on November 14, 2018.

Despite the pronouncements of the White House, wasteful government spending is endemic and shows no signs of abating anytime soon. The military, which accounts for half of all federal spending, is not immune. While the media like to remind people of the Pentagon spending $435 for a hammer or $640 for a toilet seat, accounts of true billion-dollar boondoggles often go virtually ignored. 

More expensive and potentially deadlier than a hammer or toilet seat are the myriad problems associated with the F-35 fighter jet program. The latest chapter in the saga of the F-35 boondoggle is a recent crash in South Carolina due to yet another malfunctioning Pratt & Whitney engine. It caused the military to temporarily ground all of the Pentagon’s costliest planes. 

After a recent fleet-wide inspection, the Pentagon cleared more than 80 percent of the fleet to resume flying, even though questions abound as to why these issues continue to occur with such frequency. F-35 deployment exercises continue unabated, with F-35 Joint Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova bizarrely claiming that “Aircraft deployed are ready for combat.” 

Continued research suggests that the F-35’s issues stem from failed contracting and appropriation practices which, for the sake of fairness to taxpayers, should be learned from and significantly reformed. 

For many years, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance has listed funding for additional F-35s as earmarks not requested by the Department of Defense. Other taxpayer and good government groups have also considered the F-35 to be one of the most egregious examples of pork-barrel projects in the federal budget. 

The late Sen. John McCain once called the F-35 “a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule, and performance.” 

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James once stated that “the biggest lesson I have learned from the F-35 is never again should we be flying an aircraft while we’re building it.” 

They’re right. While recent spending bills included brow-raising line items involving the F-35, such as $1.3 billion for 13 additional aircraft in the last two years, it’s clear that this cronyist project was wasteful from the very start of production. 

The jet’s development, which has already cost $400 billion, has been specially crafted in a way to spread the government’s money around to special interests. 

2013 expose of the F-35’s problems, written by Vanity Fair’s Adam Ciralsky, noted that this “politically engineered” program was “designed to spread money so far and so wide — at last count, among some 1,400 separate subcontractors, strategically dispersed among key congressional districts — that no matter how many cost overruns, blown deadlines, or serious design flaws, it would be immune to termination.” 

And when policymakers give money to those who are well-connected instead of those who are best suited for the job, they have to be prepared for the chaos and cost overruns that come with it. 

For example, the engine malfunction that led to the recent F-35 crash was not the first engine problem the jet has had. Throughout the last several years, Pratt & Whitney has had to investigate claims of excessive vibrations and uneven cooling, as well as issues with its combustor, oil seal, and knife-edge seal. Everyone from the FAA to European regulators have gotten involved, and the engines’ problem-ridden past has created significant delays in jet production at a time when demand has reached an all-time high. 

Thanks to ineffective and ostensibly well-connected contractors like this one, the F-35 has been in development for nearly 17 years and is seven years behind schedule, all while total acquisition costs have surpassed $406 billion — nearly double the initial estimate of $233 billion. 

Things will only get worse if the status quo continues unabated. An April 2015 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that operation and maintenance costs for the most expensive weapon system in history will reach $1 trillion. 

Federal appropriations and acquisition leaders should wake up and realize that America’s national defense is too critical to design based on political clout rather than strict utility, efficiency, and merit. The failures and problems that cronyism have wrought are bringing us to the brink of a major national security crisis — one that is unacceptable to anyone not living in the D.C. bubble. 

For these reasons and more, Congress should think of the hardworking American citizens that are footing the bill and begin putting country over politics. 

The failed status quo has gone on for long enough.