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Thinking about the cost of defending America
Peter Roff

War is an obscenity. Even when necessary, it is a waste of lives, of property and sometimes the principles of human decency far too many of us take for granted.

We tend to think of things like this now, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France. But there are other obscenities, like the wanton waste of taxpayer dollars by government. While hardly the moral or functional equivalent of war, the disregard of some government officials for the slog and sweat of the citizenry that fills the country’s coffers is, to say the least, highly objectionable.

The waste of the taxpayers’ effort and the rewards of their productivity on weapons of war that don’t function as promised and, in the end, are probably too expensive to be used in combat is an outrage. Yet it’s going on right now, under our noses, all throughout the Pentagon.

“Defense spending was substantially higher during the Cold War before the Soviet collapse allowed late 1990s-lawmakers to slash defense to $3,900 per household. After the War on Terror pushed it back to $6,800 per household by 2010, deep cuts followed by recent increases have left the defense budget at $5,300 per household,” says The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl. Yet for all talk of the war on waste in the U.S. military, little was done.

Consider the program to develop, procure and operate the F-35, the U.S. military’s next-generation multi-purpose fighter jet. The program is currently expected to cost in total about $1.5 trillion over its expected 55-year lifetime. To put that in perspective, according to a post on the Norwich University website, it only cost the United States just over $4 trillion (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to win the Second World War.

That’s a lot for one airplane. That’s a lot for just about anything. It may be the most expensive government program ever and, as Popular Mechanics put it in July 2018, the program is a mess.

In a piece entitled “WTF-35: How the Joint Strike Fighter Got to Be Such a Mess,” the magazine explained how “for over two decades, the F-35 has been the symbol of everything that’s wrong with mammoth defense contracts: behind schedule, over budget, and initially, over-sold” with “over a dozen major setbacks” since 2003.

In 2004 the magazine said the F-35B version came in overweight by more than 2,000 pounds and could not meet its performance goals. In 2006 the Government Accountability Office warned that retrofitting aircraft with systems that were not fully functional or working as intended as a result of the policy of concurrent development could be terribly expensive.

By 2013, the cost of retrofitting hit $1.7 billion despite changes in the program. In 2014, the GAO found the cost to operate the F-35 would be 79 percent higher than that of the aircraft it is scheduled to replace.

This program is a case study in how a great idea can spin out of control and hammer the taxpayer with massive liabilities. Those who’ve flown it say it is a great airplane but, if the high-evolved, technologically spectacular F-35 is necessary to future U.S defensive plans, you would think the bureaucracy would see the need to keep a closer eye on the bottom line. It’s time for Congress to step in and take yet another look. Hopefully, they can find savings and ways to diversify the fleet and rely on other aircraft already in service to take over some of its proposed responsibilities.

Advocates for defense on the cheap should remember you get what you pay for. That’s not what this is. But the world has changed a lot in 16 years since the program began. In just another year, kids born the year it commenced will be old enough to enlist and possibly fly these planes. They deserve the best – but so do the taxpayers’ who paid for it all, from start to finish. 

Those who say otherwise need to have their mouths washed out with soap. 

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Frontiers of Freedom and a former U.S. News and World Report contributing editor who appears regularly as a commentator on the One America News network. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Peter Roff.