At a price tag of $1.5 trillion to build and operate over its lifetime, the F-35 combat aircraft is the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. It is overpriced, underperforming and unnecessary. It is being asked to do too many things, from serving as a fighter and a bomber, to landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, to doing vertical takeoff and landing. With all of these conflicting demands, the F-35 is likely to do none of its assignments well.
Furthermore, as James Fallows noted in a recent cover story in The Atlantic, the $80 billion in projected cost overruns and waste associated with the F-35 is over 100 times the amount of taxpayer losses associated with the Solyndra solar energy project, Republican lawmakers' example of choice when they decry the inefficiencies of "big government."
What is going on here?
The usual explanation for the apparent invulnerability of the F-35 is simple: pork barrel politics.
The plane's developer, Lockheed Martin, claims that the program supports over 125,000 jobs in 46 states, many of them in the states or districts of key members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees. As I have noted elsewhere, these figures are vastly exaggerated. The program creates perhaps half as many jobs as Lockheed Martin claims, and many states have virtually no involvement in the project. But even so, the economic argument is the firm's weapon of last resort in fending off criticisms of the F-35.
Jobs aren't the only tool of influence that can be brought to bear on behalf of the F-35. Lockheed Martin maintains a stable of 95 lobbyists, and its board includes such luminaries as Joseph Ralston, the former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lockheed Martin routinely ranks at or near the top of the list of political contributors in the defense industry, and its donations are strategically placed to boost the campaigns of members of Congress with the most important roles in funding its programs. Nearly one in ten members of the House of Representatives belong to the F-35 caucus.
Add to Lockheed Martin's efforts similar activities on the part of other key F-35 contractors like Northrop Grumman, BAE, and the Pratt and Whitney division of United Technologies, and the concentrated power available to supporters of the F-35 looks impressive indeed.
But the clout of the F-35 lobby doesn't mean the program can't be stopped, or at least dramatically scaled back. A similar, job-based campaign on behalf of the company's F-22 fighter jet failed miserably when the Obama administration decided to end the program in 2010. When General Electric lobbied vigorously to be included in the F-35 program as a second engine supplier, a left-right coalition that included 47 Republican deficit hawks defeated the initiative. And on the larger issue of how much to spend on the Pentagon, the Aerospace Industries Association has been lobbying aggressively for several years without being able to fundamentally alter the caps on Pentagon spending created by the Budget Control Act of 2010.
In other words, contrary to popular belief, the military-industrial complex doesn't automatically win every battle over government spending.
This is not to suggest that rolling back the F-35 will be easy, just that it is possible. There's no question that the Air Force brass are committed to the F-35 as the plane of the future, but that is not the case for the Navy -- in the short-term the service could do as well or better with upgraded F-18s while a workable alternative to the F-35 is developed. The A-10 attack plane is far better at close air support of troops than the F-35 will ever be, and there is a strong Congressional constituency in favor of keeping the A-10 over the objections of the Air Force. And as the price of the F-35 rises, there has been grumbling among allied nations involved in the program, with a number of them postponing or cutting their buys of the plane.
As Ashton Carter noted in hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, when he was head of procurement at the Pentagon, the key to the future of the F-35 program is affordability. By that standard, it should be canceled immediately. As Carter noted at the same hearing, there was an "erosion of discipline" in the program during the decade of endless growth in Pentagon spending in the early 2000s. He said the following with specific reference to the F-35 program:
"It's been easy to solve problems with money. You see that in programs where they slip a little bit, throw a little bit more money, a technological problem, throw a little bit more money in. We need to be much more vigilant about how we use money to solve our problems."
Over the years, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the incoming chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been a vocal critic of the F-35, at one point describing Lockheed Martin's management of the program as "abysmal." The Pentagon claims that progress has been made in getting the program's cost under control, but it appears that the claimed reductions have more to do with fiddling with assumptions than actual progress in reducing concrete costs of the project. Sen. McCain would do a great public service if he made the performance, cost, and future of the F-35 a major line of questioning in Ashton Carter's confirmation hearings.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. Follow him @WilliamHartung