President Trump was famously a critic of the F-35 jet fighter when he was running for the White House. But he recently hailed it as the cherry on top of the Pentagon’s ice-cream sundae that is the government’s rest-of-2018 spending bill. While his reversal tells us a lot about the Commander in Chief, it may say even more about the plasticity of buying weapons and how much they cost.
The Pentagon was counting on buying 70 F-35s this year for $10.8 billion. But the revamped spending bill Trump signed March 23 plops an additional $2.9 billion for 20 more planes into the Defense Department’s coffers. He cited an increase in the F-35 buy as a way to bolster a “very depleted” military that will “in a short period of time…be stronger than it’s ever been.”
Viewing more $160 million fighters as a benchmark for a strong U.S. military is the national-security equivalent of trying to prove a negative. “Well, it can’t hurt…” the conventional wisdom goes. But the conventional wisdom is wrong in two key respects. First, throwing money at shiny new toys sucks funds from less glamorous items—including boots, bullets, beans, training time, et cetera—that matter more on the battlefield. Second, it ignores a basic rule of nature: defense spending waxes and wanes as predictably as the phases of the moon. The White House, Pentagon, and Congress are all now acting as if the extra dollars will keep flowing. So they gear up to produce more weapons than the nation will soon enough decide it cannot afford. That breeds inefficiency when today’s flood inevitably turns into tomorrow’s trickle, and that beefed-up manufacturing capacity goes unused.
So fattening up Pentagon procurement, as the White House and Congress just did, ends up burning the candle at both ends.
The F-35 is, or will be, good enough, if the program ever gets around to completing its design. F-16s and F-18s are good enough, too. But that’s not the right question. The right question is, is this the best the nation can do? The F-35 is the wrong weapon for the wrong century. Dogfighting—the up-close, in-your-face raison d'être for a fighter—passed into history several wars back. If Trump really cared about the troops, he’d force the Pentagon to move from its fetish for short-range, manned fighters toward long-range missiles that could be lobbed from lumbering planes beyond danger, or drones that could fly into harm’s way without risking American lives.
The F-35 represents the last gasp of the Pentagon’s pilots’ club. It is the U.S. military’s one-size-fits-all Air Force, Navy, and Marine combo-fighter. A Swiss Army knife of compromises, it has been plagued by overruns and delays since the first one took off more than a decade ago, much of that due to the stupidity of building the plane as its blueprints keep changing.
Trump has pulled a 9G turn when it comes to the F-35. “I do hear that it’s not very good,” Trump said of the plane in 2015. “I’m hearing that our existing planes are better.” He continued his airstream of consciousness: “They’re saying it doesn’t perform as well as our existing equipment, which is much less expensive. So when I hear that, immediately I say we have to do something, because you know, they’re spending billions. This is a plane. There’s never been anything like it in terms of cost.”
Things got even grimmer, from the F-35’s perspective, after the election. “The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump tweeted a month after winning. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.” Two weeks later, he zapped F-35 builder Lockheed Martin anew by announcing he had asked rival Boeing how much a “comparable” F-18 would cost.
Trump’s words sent Lockheed’s stock price into a tailspin. Company and Pentagon officials defended the program, noting that stepped-up production would drive per-plane costs down. “I don't think the program cost-wise is out of control, nor do I think that it’s out of control schedule-wise,” the Air Force general then running the F-35 program said a week after Trump’s broadside.
But Trump didn’t ease up. “It’s way, way behind schedule and many, many billions of dollars over budget. I don’t like that,” he said in his first post-election press conference, a week before he took office. “We’re going to get those costs way down.”
Trump and Pentagon officials met with Lockheed brass and declared savings were on their way. But calculating the cost of weapons is an arcane art—no, it’s not science, or even accounting—designed to keep taxpayers in the dark about how their money is being spent.
Such purported savings allowed Trump to reverse course on the F-35. The plane Trump once disdained as too expensive and not very good is now “beautiful” and the toast of his skies. But cost reductions were baked into the program. It happens whenever you begin building more of something: the price drops the more of them you build, as economies of scale multiply and the skills of those bending metal improve.
Yet the F-35 program’s total lifetime procurement cost has hardly budged. It shrank from an estimated $406.5 billion last year to $406.1 billion this year—a reduction of 0.09848 percent—less than one-tenth of 1 percent. Even eliminating the F-35’s “sunk costs”—money spread across the entire program, regardless of how many planes are bought, like the cost of its development—yields a decidedly modest 0.2 percent decline, according to a not-yet-released Pentagon assessment reviewed by Anthony Capaccio of Bloomberg News. (That reduces the cost of an average F-35 from $165.513 million to $165.350 million, a decline of $163,000.)
There are lots of ways to price a warplane. Most of them are designed to make it appear less expensive than it really is. “Flyaway” cost is the most common. It simply pretends that airplanes rolling off the production line are virgin births, with no money spent to develop them or to build the hangars they need. “Then-year” or “constant-year” pricing is another technique that pretends time stands still and that every dollar spent on the program has, let’s say, the value of a 2010 greenback. Both of these are valid tools used by the green-eyeshade crowd to chart progress, but they’re too often cited by those who know better as a way of depressing the public perception of a weapon’s true cost. The Pentagon and its suppliers routinely employ such sleight of math when discussing programs as a whole, or when buying a year’s worth of airplanes.
But such tricks can’t mask the fiscal rot endemic to the F-35 program. Before his election, Trump enlisted a test pilot’s grim assessment of how poorly the F-35 performed against the F-16 it is designed to replace. Other reports say it is better than the F-16. But both miss the point, which is this: pilots are more important than platforms, and training is more important than both.
It takes a lot of costly flight hours to train an F-35 pilot (and, according to this almost certainly understated 2016 estimate, it costs three times as much—about $28,000 vs. $8,000—to fly an F-35 for an hour, compared to an F-16). “Pilots need experience in the cockpit, but given the enormous costs, continual delays and tremendous complexity involved, experienced pilots is one thing the F-35 isn’t going to have any time soon,” Air Force acquisition expert Dan Ward wrote back in 2015.
Things are, if anything, getting worse. The F-35 program manager said last month that only 51 percent of his planes are ready to fly. “If you can afford to buy something, but you have to keep it in the parking lot because you can’t afford to own and operate it, then it really doesn’t do you much good,” Vice Adm. Mat Winter said. And Bloomberg’s Capaccio reported March 28 that the Air Force has estimated that the service might have to cut its planned F-35 buy by a third, from 1,763 to 1,173, if it can’t reduce the plane’s operating costs.
That’s the bottom line on the bottom line: Increasing costs and decreasing planes mean poorer, and fewer, pilots. That’s a deadly spiral even a dealmaking commander in chief can’t escape.