National Security & Defense

Our Wasteful Defense Establishment

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings conduct a combat-power exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, January 6, 2020. (R. Nial Bradshaw/USAF)
American servicemembers’ lives are threatened by Pentagon boondoggles.

America’s top-of-the-line fighter jet might not be able to break the speed of sound or fire its own cannon, but its ability to score lucrative contracts for its manufacturer remains as impressive as ever. Last month Lockheed Martin won a nearly $500 million contract to develop new weapons for the troubled F-35 fighter. And earlier this month, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $1.8 billion contract to perform maintenance work and manage logistics for the F-35 program.

The issues plaguing the F-35 fighter, its development, and its entry into service have received extensive coverage from policy analysts and government watchdog organizations, most recently from a Government Accountability Office report that said: “Since 2012, F-35 estimated sustainment costs over its 66-year life cycle have increased steadily, from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion, despite efforts to reduce costs. The services will collectively be confronted with tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs that they project as unaffordable during the program.”

And the F-35 is far from the only defense program suffering from cost overruns and lack of a clear purpose. Bloated, ineffective programs are a symptom of the misplaced priorities, poor decision-making, and lack of vision plaguing the American defense establishment. The burden on taxpayers and servicemembers alone should be enough to warrant serious scrutiny of the practices that have enabled such bad management for so long. But wasteful defense programs and poor military strategy don’t just cost taxpayer dollars. They can cost American servicemembers’ lives.

The F-35 is eventually supposed to replace most of the United States’ legacy fighter and ground-attack aircraft, yet it still suffers from nearly 900 design flaws. Nearly one in five of these flaws have received a “no planned correction” label, meaning that the government cannot fix them or will not devote the resources necessary to do so. If America has to go to war in the near future, hundreds of unready F-35s may have to be pressed into front-line service. As a result, structural deficiencies and software bugs will reveal themselves in combat conditions and unnecessarily jeopardize thousands of lives. Alternatively, a pivot to war footing could mean that older fighters such as the F-16 and F/A-18 will fly the bulk of combat missions. These aircraft will be significantly more vulnerable to the latest air defenses employed by America’s adversaries. In either case, pilots could well lose their lives because the Department of Defense bet on a single fighter program that has failed to live up to expectations.

The F-35 is not the military’s only expensive toy that isn’t ready for serious conflict. For years, the Navy poured money into the Littoral Combat Ship program with the goal of creating a fleet of fast, high-tech ships with a wide range of weapon systems to choose from. The LCS was supposed to be capable of missions that ranged from intercepting drug-trafficking boats to destroying enemy ships. But simulations that pitted the LCS against similarly classed Chinese craft resulted in stunning defeats. The ships’ speed and sensors simply couldn’t make up for their anemic weapons. It’s hard to believe that an LCS with a $550 million price tag could end up with just a small-caliber main gun and missiles with a range of only five miles. The Navy wanted these ships to do everything, but ended up making them unable to do anything. The “easily adaptable” weapons and sensor modules were neither easy to adapt nor lethal enough to protect the ship. Now, the Navy is retiring four LCS hulls, some of which have been in service for less than a decade. But just as with the F-35, the wasted funding and development time mean that the armed forces are short on high-tech and functional equipment that could actually be fielded to save lives.

It’s critical that policymakers reflect on the past while crafting a coherent national-defense strategy. Clearly, mistakes and an unwillingness to change course can cost countless lives. The 2,300 U.S. military personnel who died in Afghanistan over the last two decades and the hundreds of people who died during the latest Veterans Affairs scandal are sad testaments to this truth. Yet instead of learning from the past, the DoD is unnecessarily putting servicemembers’ lives at risk in the future.

It’s time to pivot away from wasteful, unnecessary Pentagon programs such as the F-35 and insist that any future defense endeavors are carefully monitored for structural deficiencies and cost overruns from the get-go. After two decades of mismanaged war, servicemembers and taxpayers deserve better than a budget-busting boondoggle.

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