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F-35 program embodies the problems with defense acquisition — here’s how we fix them

A projected cost over $1.7 trillion. A fighter jet that exhibits everything from structural cracks to cybersecurity vulnerabilities. Twenty years in development — and it still can’t shoot straight and is rarely ready to fly when it is needed.

This is a brief overview of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a purportedly low-cost plane intended to serve the needs of all military branches. A joint hearing before House Armed Services Subcommittees on Tactical Air and Land Forces and Readiness last week again called representatives from the U.S. Department of Defense and the F-35’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, to account for this colossal boondoggle.

It would be nice to think we’ll get straight answers and clear solutions in this public forum, but two decades of experience engender mostly pessimism. Congress so far has been unable to face the hard facts about a purchase that the Pentagon’s former chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, once called “acquisition malpractice.”

Apparently, the U.S. not only has banks deemed “too big to fail” — institutions worthy of perpetual taxpayer bailout — we now have defense programs “too expensive to give up.” Billions of dollars in, and with nearly 900 documented design flaws — many potentially fatal and with no fix in the works — and the federal government cannot seem to break free of this budget albatross.

Consider for a moment what $1.7 trillion dollars truly represents. As a point of reference, the American Rescue Plan Act, designed to draw the entire U.S. economy out of the COVID-19 slump carried a price tag of $1.9 trillion. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, which covers everything from roads and bridges to broadband internet and elder care, comes in at $2 trillion or so, again leaving many leaders gasping with sticker shock.

Why does the same price sensitivity not apply to a single, sorely misguided defense decision made four presidential administrations ago? How can elected officials charged with protecting the U.S. taxpayer continually fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy and fail to quit this program or, at the very least, scale back the number of these questionably functional fighter jets we purchase?

Unfortunately, there are predictable answers to these questions. First, crony capitalism. It’s no coincidence that 50 of 128 retired senior military leaders signing a letter supporting the F-35 program failed to disclose ties that could benefit them financially.

Then there is the pork. A Lockheed Martin website brags that “the F-35 program teams with nearly 1,900 U.S. suppliers—including more than 1,000 small business suppliers—in 45 states and Puerto Rico to produce thousands of aircraft components.” That supply chain was strategically designed with politics in mind. Try being the Grinch up for reelection after leading the charge to end such a program.

These motivations distort a purchasing process already rife with overspending and outright corruption. The F-35 is a symptom of a larger problem the nation must address. That’s why the Project On Government Oversight operates a Defense Accountability Initiative. We are determined to stop the misuse and abuse of taxpayer funds and bring transparency to military spending.

The good news is that the measures needed to rein in the Pentagon are not complicated. Congress can immediately stop writing blank checks. There are billions of dollars in cost-reduction options that don’t compromise national security, and forthcoming budgets should force Pentagon officials to seek them out.

Lawmakers can also demand realism in vulnerability assessments. The biggest threat the U.S. has faced in recent memory was and continues to be the novel coronavirus, and we aren’t fighting it with tanks and missiles. Even more conventional military challenges, such as China, should be managed via a partnership of agencies, not with the Pentagon calling all the shots.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must slam shut the revolving door between the Pentagon and lucrative positions with its contractors. President Biden’s ethics-related executive order is a good start, but more stringent measures are necessary to dismantle the military industrial complex.

Sound financial management means knowing you can’t have everything on your wish list. The Pentagon has for too long avoided this basic reckoning, while Americans’ other priorities — from health care to education to infrastructure — always seem to be on the chopping block. Building back better in the wake of COVID-19 should include bringing all the nation’s needs into a more measured and responsible fiscal balance.

Dan Grazier is a Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan independent government watchdog, and a former Marine Corps captain having served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror.

Tags F-35 Joe Biden Joint Strike Fighter program

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