Thinking big doesn’t always pay, especially when it comes to military procurement. Complex, aspirational weapons systems are irresistible to military brass, because they keep budget dollars flowing for years on end. Members of Congress like them too, especially when they can locate a manufacturing facility inside their district.
But weapons systems with too many new bells and whistles get mired in cost overruns, delays, and technical challenges. All too often, they take so long to develop that they are no longer cutting edge when they come on line. That’s the case with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a state-of-the-art radar-eluding plane set to take to the skies this month after several years of delay. The plane, which was commissioned in 2001, has been beset with engine problems, software glitches, and flaws in its fuel system. Each issue that had to be fixed drove up the cost. Today, the F-35 costs roughly twice what the US military thought it would back in 2001.
The version of the F-35 that will be used by the Navy initially priced out at about $80 million each. Today, it costs about $170 million. And that price tag could rise even further, if other countries that have placed orders on the planes back out of the deal, as Australia just did. Lockheed Martin is guaranteed its money. But American taxpayers aren’t guaranteed their planes.
Initially, the plan was to purchase about 3,000 F-35s for about $200 billion to replace an aging Cold War-era fleet. But as the price tag per plane has gone up, the number the US military can afford to buy has gone down. The current plan is to purchase 2,443 F-35s, at a cost of $391 billion. Even this plan is unaffordable, because it is expected to cost an additional $20 billion a year to operate and support the planes, 80 percent more than the previous fleet. Over the lifecycle of the program, it’s expected to reach $1 trillion, making it the most expensive weapons system in human history.
It’s so expensive, in fact, that the Pentagon is considering an alternative: Buy fewer F-35s, and supplement the fleet by purchasing more F-18 Hornets, which cost about $40 million each. That would be a wise course of action. It’s the solution that saved the Pentagon money in the 1970s, after a similar debacle with the F-14 Tomcat. That plane was equipped with so many fancy accessories that the cost spiraled out of control. So the military developed a lightweight alternative: the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which became one of the most important weapons in the US arsenal, at a third of the cost. To be sure, American taxpayers will pay a penalty for purchasing fewer F-35s than originally planned. But any money that can be salvaged from this money pit of a contract would be better spent on battle-tested planes that are cheaper to operate.
But the most devastating critique of the F-35 isn’t the cost, or the persistent technical failures. It’s the fact that the F-35 was designed for big, traditional wars, not the conflicts US forces are embroiled in today. It’s unclear how helpful this plane will be when it comes to destroying ISIS, or stopping Russian special forces from slipping across the border into Ukraine, or checking China’s shenanigans in the South China Sea. At a time when both technology and geopolitics are evolving so rapidly, it seems foolish to devote so many defense department dollars to a weapons system that doesn’t address today’s greatest security challenges.