THE BLOG

The Massive Government Train Wreck Nobody's Really Talking About

08/09/2013 04:30 pm ET | Updated Oct 09, 2013

What's the biggest crisis facing the nation right now?

Depending on who you ask, you'll probably get a very different response. But just based on the results from the latest CBS poll asking Americans which issue they feel Congress should focus on, the answer is the economy, followed by the budget deficit, health care and education.

These are all worthy priorities, but interestingly, nowhere on the list is military technology or defense mentioned. This is a surprise given that the United States is currently at war.

Against who? Well, that's a secret.

But given that the country is at war, and it's a certain area of expertise of our nation, it's a wonder why there isn't more discussion surrounding the construction of the F-35 plane -- the biggest project that the Pentagon is currently undertaking with weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin, at a current procurement and development cost of $392 billion.

An exclusive report from Reuters, published on March 29 2012, indicated that the total cost to build, develop and operate the planes over the next half-century would be $1.5 trillion.

What's $1.5 trillion? Well, even if you reduce the figure to take into account inflation, it's enough to cover any estimate of the outstanding student loan debt in America or patch up much of our the nation's aging infrastructure.

But did I mention that the jets aren't even functional yet?

Since the program was launched in 2001 (at an estimated cost of $231 billion that has now nearly doubled), Lockheed Martin hasn't produced one ready-to-use plane of the 2,443 that the U.S. government planned to purchase by 2037.

In fact, twice just this year, F-35s have been grounded as a result of parts failing and the jets have a little bit of trouble flying in difficult conditions such as cloudy weather.

As the L.A. Times highlighted in a very good in-depth report on the struggling program published in June:

Pressure intensified on the test teams last week when the Marines Corps said it wanted its F-35s to be ready for combat by the end of 2015 -- one year earlier than planned. The Air Force also moved up its date, to 2016. The Navy plans to see its F-35s aboard U.S. aircraft carriers by early-2019.

This is an ambitious plan, considering the Government Accountability Office estimated that F-35 flight testing, which has repeatedly fallen behind schedule, is only about one-third complete.

And while we wait for the program to get up and running, it's important to re-iterate that it is hemorrhaging money that a lot of Americans could use right now.

The GAO estimated the program would cost an unprecedented $12.6 billion a year on average through 2037 -- that's an average of about $1.4 million an hour for the next two and a half decades.

The per-plane cost estimates have climbed to $161 million today from $81 million in 2001, the GAO said.

The project was billed as a joint venture between the U.S. and its allies, but Britain has only made plans to purchase 48 of the planes, while Israel is only committed to 19 at the moment.

This past July, the Pentagon and Lockheed reached an agreement to purchase 71 of the new planes. "These two contracts represent a fair deal that is beneficial to the government and Lockheed Martin," said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the F-35's Program Executive Officer. "Improving affordability is critical to the success of this program, and by working together we were able to negotiate a lower cost F-35."

The cost was reportedly lowered by 4 percent, making the situation not too dissimilar from ordering a meal at a restaurant for $8, the waiter handing you the meal and telling you "Well, it's $16 now, but I'll cut you a deal and you can have it for $15" and then you telling all your friends that you deftly negotiated the price of the meal down and plan to eat at that restaurant until 2037.

While the cost of the planes is troubling, what's perhaps even more upsetting is the lack of critical thinking goes into the investment. It's somewhat shortsighted to assume that in 2037, when the final shipment of planes is expected to be delivered, wars will be fought in the same manner that they were in 1937. It's not unrealistic to assume that by then -- and even today -- a few menacing strokes on a keyboard could cause much more damage than a theoretically functioning missile propelled by a theoretically functional jet.

But despite the objectively poor results, the F-35 program hasn't come under much publicly scrutiny from politicians.

And I'm sure you can guess why...

According to OpenSecrets.org, Lockheed Martin spent more than $4 million on campaign contributions in 2012. But most interestingly, the money was split fairly evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates (The top two recipients: Mitt Romney, followed closely behind by Barack Obama). But the $4 million spent on campaigns is a paltry sum compared to the nearly $16 million spent on lobbying. And when one takes into account that 67 of Lockheed Martin's 92 political lobbyists formerly held government jobs, the message is clear: If you're good to Lockheed, it will be very good to you.

At the end of the day, constant investment in military technology is at best a crutch and more likely a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the current debate surrounding the F-35 program mostly involves the most cost-effective way to purchase the jets, perhaps our focus should be on how we can create a world where no country feels compelled to own 2,400 state-of-the-art killing machines.