The Defense Department’s F-35 fighter — the most costly weapons system in history — is the grift that keeps on taking.
With the F-35 already more than a decade late and $165 billion over budget, the Pentagon’s latest plea is for an additional $1.4 billion to be crowbarred into the 2023 military budget for the fifth-generation fighter. The ask is contained in an unusual, late in the year budgetary wish list sent directly to Congress as it goes behind closed doors to negotiate the final fiscal year 2023 defense budget.
The Pentagon and its congressional backers say the fifth-generation fighter is needed to meet the supposed growing threat from China. But they don’t talk about the wisdom of rushing a plane into production while its blueprints remain in flux. That rush was dubbed “acquisition malpractice” by current Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in 2012 when he was the Pentagon’s top civilian weapons buyer, and it remains true today.
The Pentagon is now negotiating with F-35 builder Lockheed Martin to buy 375 planes for up to $30 billion over three years, down from its 2019 plan to buy 485. But it says it won’t be able to afford even the lower number unless it gets that extra $1.4 billion.
“Currently, the program has insufficient funds due to various cost drivers to fund the total planned quantities,” the Pentagon says in its congressional plea, according to a November 15 Bloomberg report. “Without these additional funds aircraft procurement will be reduced.” That’s because the per-plane cost is growing due to inflation, reduced plane purchases, and supply chain snafus triggered by COVID-19 disruptions.
“If history is any guide, Congress is likely to give the Pentagon what it wants.”
“Any reduction in the number of F-35s produced now is actually a good thing,” says POGO’s Dan Grazier, who has been studying the program for years. “Buying F-35s now is like purchasing a new smartphone at full price from your wireless carrier knowing it won’t make phone calls yet because the software hasn’t been written.”
Here are four more reasons to scale back on purchases of the so-called fifth-generation fighter, which is crammed with sometimes-radar-eluding stealth technology and the latest in sometimes-working weapons and electronics:
- The Defense Department itself, for starters, has acknowledged it can’t afford as many F-35s as it wanted in 2023, cutting its planned buy from 94 to 61, a 35% reduction. That’s because the plane’s true cost has been fudged for years. Originally billed as a low-cost replacement for the F-16, it has morphed into what the Air Force’s chief of staff calls his fighter force’s “Ferrari.”
- The Government Accountability Office reported on November 10 that none of the services flying the plane have met the F-35’s availability goal — that is, its ability to actually fly when needed. Neither the Air Force nor the Navy hit their (undisclosed) target in any year over the past decade, and the Marines hit it in only two of the past nine years. One reason: The Pentagon and its contractors have agreed non-working engines can ground 6% of the F-35 fleet, five times the rate of other warplanes.
- The $412 billion F-35 program has yet to enter full-rate production, originally set for 2019, because of testing delays and other snafus. Just this year, delivery of new F-35s was temporarily halted when it was discovered that there were Chinese-made materials in the aircraft. Regardless, the Air Force plans to buy 1,763 of the planes, although it has hinted it may cut that to 1,050; the Navy wants 273; and the Marines want 420. Under current plans, the Pentagon will buy one-third of its 2,470-plane F-35 fleet (including 14 test models) before greenlighting full-rate production.
- Last month, William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said the Defense Department will not seek more funding due to inflation because defense industry groups pushing for such hikes have failed to provide “any analyses or data” justifying them. This makes the new eleventh hour pitch to Congress for more funds due to inflation even more outrageous, and should cause lawmakers to be extra skeptical, especially when the fiscal year 2024 Pentagon budget cycle is just a couple of months away.
If history is any guide, Congress is likely to give the Pentagon what it wants. That’s because the F-35 is more than a weapons system — it’s a jobs system, just like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. But this WPA stands for Weapons Produced by Americans: “The F-35 is responsible for more than 254,000+ direct and indirect U.S. jobs,” its manufacturer says. “The Lockheed Martin F-35 program teams with nearly 1,800 domestic suppliers in 45 states and Puerto Rico to produce thousands of components from highly sophisticated radar sensors to the aircraft’s mid fuselage.”
The latest request for more money, which Capitol Hill got on November 11, is an item on the Pentagon’s second $25 billion unfunded priorities list for 2023. After then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates reduced such lists by nearly 90% over a decade ago, they’ve come roaring back, thanks in part to congressional action. The 2017 defense authorization bill requires the lists to be sent to Capitol Hill each year within 10 days of the Pentagon’s official budget submission.
Sometimes known as “wish lists,” they’re a chance for the Pentagon to take a second (or in this case, third) annual bite out of the taxpayer’s purse that largely skips the internal budget-making process. It’s rare, if not unprecedented, to see a second wish list in a single year, especially two weeks before Thanksgiving with the fiscal year 2024 defense budget cycle only months away.
But, then again, if you’re looking to stuff a turkey, there’s no better time.