A U.S. Navy F-35B pictured during high-altitude maneuvering.
The spectre of the military-industrial complex looms large over American politics today. Defense spending has eclipsed every other federal program combined as a percentage of the discretionary budget and amounts to more than nine times the amount of money annually spent on healthcare.
Eisenhower’s prescient warning of the dangers of self-propelling war industry has been ignored as America now wages a perpetual war against its own self-interest and the general well-being takes back seat to relentless peacetime militarization. Military industry and congressional interests are responsible for eating up the lion’s share of the budget; defense readiness has nothing to do with it.
If you need evidence, look no further than the Pentagon’s latest and greatest defense program, the Joint Strike Fighter.
The stealthy, multirole F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most advanced single-engine aircraft in the world. The state of the art 5th-generation fighter jet comes equipped with brand-new sensory and avionics systems and, according to the Pentagon, will ensure that America retains its air superiority for decades to come.
Unfortunately, the plane is as prohibitively expensive as it is completely dysfunctional. The Joint Strike Fighter is routinely referred to in Washington as “the plane that ate the Pentagon.” Its fifteen-year development has been plagued by technical failures and poor performance reviews and it is becoming clear that the original blueprint was riddled with design flaws. The plane has caught fire on numerous field tests and the entire prototype fleet has been grounded no less than three times. The program is several hundred billion dollars dollars over budget, five years behind schedule, and has a short technological lifespan anyway.
Manufacturing the 2,457 plane fleet costs about $400 billion (twice the original estimate) with maintenance, training, and operational costs being upwards of $1.1 trillion over the program’s lifetime. Add to that the estimated costs of implementing redesigns in the fuel tank, cockpit display, hydraulic systems, maneuverability and sensory systems, the pilot’s helmet, and faulty ailerons and the total should come out to a cool $2 trillion spread over a decade or so or, to put that in perspective, around the cost of the Iraq War.
The F-35 was never designed to work. It’s a repackaged version of the existing F-22 Raptor, but less reliable. In field tests, the Joint Strike Fighter consistently underperforms the F-16, a plane 40 years its senior. It has yet to win a simulated dogfight against any of the stealth fighter models currently in use and Navy test pilots have reported that in mock combat exercises they were at a “distinct energy disadvantage” when flying the F-35.
Congress has been fast-tracking the single most expensive weapons system in human history and a massive boondoggle. Despite still being in its development stage and still suffering from innumerable technological setbacks and an inferior design, the F-35 is still being manufactured even as it is being redesigned. Taxpayer money is being spent to produce an expensive and dysfunctional line of fighter jets that, even at full functionality, wouldn’t be able to replace jets made in the 1970s.
The program is a pork barrel buffet. Congress has, on eight separate occasions, approved multibillion dollar spending increases for the F-35 program despite its programmatic and budgetary failures. Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems, the defense contractors overseeing the design and manufacture of the Joint Strike Fighter, are able to offer more than a hundred thousand jobs on this project alone to districts whose members of Congress are willing to finance the project. The local job creation means many more votes for those same officials come election and the cycle continues. Even supposed deficit hawks like Representative Jim Bridenstine (OK), Representative Mo Brooks (AL), Representative John Fleming (LA), and Representative Trent Franks (AZ) have been unable to resist the siren call of lucrative defense contracts.
The F-35 program is by no means an outlier. It is merely the latest in a long series of wasteful, multi-billion dollar military expenditures over the past decade alone. The Navy’s favorite pet project, the doomed Littoral Combat Ship, can’t hunt or even float properly but the proposed $40 billion budget is not only expected to survive federal inquiry but may even grow. The cost of the new Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, designed to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel, has ballooned from $345 million to nearly $10 billion for construction alone and still has no customers in sight. The M1 Abrams tank is being refitted, upgraded, and produced in greater numbers despite the Army’s insistence that they have more than enough tanks, so many that 2,000 sit completely unused in a hangar in California.
Programs that Congress, the Pentagon, and top military brass know to be flawed and functionally irrelevant to defense readiness are not only approved, but fasttracked. Buying votes used to be called fraud; now it’s called being strong on defense.
Matthew Finkel is a sophomore at Wesleyan University, majoring in Government and Latin American Regional Studies with a minor in International Relations.