Cancel the F-35, Fund Infrastructure Instead

W.J. Astore

Imagine you’re President Joe Biden. You’re looking for nearly $2 trillion to fund vital repairs and improvements to America’s infrastructure. You learn of a warplane, the F-35 Lightning II, that may cost as much as $1.7 trillion to buy, field and maintain through the next half century. Also, you learn it’s roughly $200 billion over budget and more than a decade behind schedule. You learn it was supposed to be a low-cost, high-availability jet but that through time, it’s become a high-cost, low-availability one. Your senior Air Force general compares it to a Ferrari sports car and says we’ll “drive” it only on Sundays. What do you do?

Your first thought would probably be to cancel it, save more than a trillion dollars, and fund America’s infrastructure needs. Yet instead, the U.S. military is turning on the afterburners and going into full production. What gives?

When 60 Minutes reported on the F-35 in 2014, the plane was already seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Since then, it has weathered a series of setbacks and complications: Engines that are unreliable and in short supply. An ultra-expensive software system to maintain and repair the plane that doesn’t work. Higher operating costs — as much as 300% higher — compared to previous planes like the F-16 or the A-10. An overly loud engine that creates a noise nuisance to nearby population centers. The list goes on, yet so, too, does the F-35 program.

Why? Because of the power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The F-35’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, used a tried-and-true formula to insulate the plane from political pressure, spreading jobs across 45 states and 307 congressional districts. In essence, the F-35 program has become “too big to fail.” At the Pentagon level, the plane is supposed to fulfill the needs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps for a “fifth generation” stealthy fighter. There is no alternative, or so you’re told.

Yet, as America’s commander-in-chief, you must always remember there are alternatives. Think about it. Why buy a deeply troubled weapon system at inflated prices? Why reward a military contractor for woeful failures to deliver on time and within budget?

Congress rarely asks such questions because of the corrosive power of corporate lobbyists, the military’s insatiable demands for tech-heavy wonder weapons, and thinly-veiled threats that program cuts will cost jobs — meaning members of Congress might face electoral defeat if they fail to safeguard the F-35 pork apportioned to their districts.

But you’re the president — you should be above all that. You take a wider view like the one President Dwight D. Eisenhower took in 1953 in his “cross of iron” speech. Here Ike, a former five-star Army general, challenged Americans to prioritize instruments of peace over tools of war. Schools and hospitals, Ike wrote, were more vital to a democracy than destroyers and fighter jets. Ike was right then — and even more right today. He famously invested in an interstate highway system that served as an accelerant to the U.S. economy. He knew that warplanes, especially overly pricey and operationally dicey ones, were much less vital to the common good.

The Pentagon tells you it’s the F-35 or bust. But for you as president, it’s the F-35 and bust. You begin to realize that so many of the experts advising you to stay the course on the F-35 stand to profit if you do so.

And then you realize as America’s commander-in-chief that no weapon system should be too big to fail. You take heart from Sen. John McCain. In 2016, that ex-naval aviator declared the F-35 program was “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule and performance.”

Why continue that scandal? Why not end that tragedy? You can decide to send the strongest and clearest message to the military-industrial-congressional complex by cancelling the F-35. You can vow to reform the flawed system that produced it. And you can fund your vital infrastructure programs with the savings.

William J. Astore is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and history professor. He is currently a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network.

Up, up, and away, especially the costs

11 thoughts on “Cancel the F-35, Fund Infrastructure Instead

  1. “… through the next half century.”
    People actually believe this – or any plane not designated “B-52” – will still be in use in 50 years? Kind of like those stealth fighters/bombers/fighter-bombers Tom Clancy made such good use of, huh? How are they holding up these days?
    And I thought the notion of “home field advantage” was insane.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent excerpt from one of the masters of sci fi.

      It is very timely regarding the soon to be invasion of Taiwan by mainland China. The airspace violations by the Chinese into Taiwan’s airspace are increasing every week. The Taiwan air force has admitted to fatigue trying to respond to all these violations.

      The Chinese have invested heavily into producing diesel powered submarines. Why would they invest in a 20th century design? I surmise it is to surround Taiwan with subs so that any U.S. aircraft carrier will be in target range. One cheap submarine can take out one multi-billion dollar aircraft carrier.

      Covid-19 also plays into this. The Chinese have observed how our society fumbled the response to this virus. They learned that the U.S. is not flexible, decisive or competent to battle a disease let alone a prepared and conscious adversary.

      There are also social divisions within the military regarding race, religion, gender and politics. Does this make for a united combat unit? This is surely observed by the Chinese.

      It is no accident the Chinese are violating Taiwanese airspace now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bravo Bill !
    Many of us now-old Vietnam Vets-who long-since turned AntiWar-Anti MIC and politically Progressive( and who follow your columns as well as TomDispatch) will endorse this
    and urge our Congresspersons to start the long road that turns away from military force, world’s leading arms supplier, and militarization of foreign AND domestic policy…Swords into Plowshares
    financed by taxpayers and corporations seeking radical change, and actualized by a highly trained, disciplined workforce (the US Military) that could create something positive and peaceful
    rather than dystopic and destructive.
    I’m an old man–I can dream dreams can’t I?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure! I’m dreaming too in this article.

      It amazes me that a weapon system that’s a decade behind schedule and $200 billion over budget is virtually immune to cancellation. It’s our version of the sacred cow. Maybe it’s a golden idol too.

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  3. And if Biden mustered the necessary stones to—again—defy military leaders (’cause the date certain for the Afghanistan withdrawal, even such as it is, surely irked them), it’s entirely possible to create support for cancelling the F-35, despite the fact that Lockheed is whispering job-loss threats. For once, Biden and the Dems as a party would need to formulate a coherent message and STICK TO IT. As genius George Lakoff puts it, framing is everything, a concept that the Dems have continually failed to grasp. NOT job losses if the F-35 is cancelled, but freed-up funds for new projects in those 45 states. MORE job opportunities, MORE benefits for residents. As in, “We got rid of this terminally wasteful, doomed-to-fail boondoggle, and here’s what we’re going to do instead,” with big, splashy graphics of new community centers, rehabbed schools, new parks and green spaces, and so on. Proactively announce the decision as a huge advantage to constituents, instead of scrapping the F-35 and then making sniveling, groveling apologies. Are Dems actually capable of that kind of forethought and savvy? Not so far, but there’s always a chance they might wise up, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said! The problem is that politicians are both bought and lacking in spine — but perhaps I repeat myself.

      They’re bought by the Complex and afraid of being attacked as “weak” on military matters. Also, it’s so much easier just to go along with the system. Resistance takes fortitude and longer-term thinking, but our so-called representatives are always thinking money for their next election and more money for when they leave office. And mo’ money is often found by working for various “defense” contractors.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s no arguing with your points. I don’t know how to address the issue of perceived weakness on military matters, but as far as campaign contributions go, Biden (NOT Nancy) needs to have a come-to-Jesus with all the Dem legislators, in groups of, say, 50. Especially lean on the DNC and Congressional and Senate committee chairs. Pay special attention to any at-risk seats. Explain the facts of life, and point out that an elected official who has brought in money for that shiny new community center or other popular project—thus creating jobs—and who is all about CUTTING WASTE to better serve constituents and spend taxpayer funds wisely, has a much stronger position when it comes to re-election. Perhaps people could relate more to creating safe spaces for teens and seniors, or revamping the crumbling overpasses in their towns, for instance, than they can relate to a newfangled, super-high-tech plane they’re never going to see. Granted, the Dems would have to stay on message and be relentless about pushing the benefits of bringing in funds to help entire communities, but most of them are at least somewhat intelligent boys and girls. It’s just a matter of motivation, and in that, Biden should channel LBJ.

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  4. If you have the intelligence to create such sophisticated pieces of equipment. Wouldn’t it be an easy lift to create employment. Job creation has been happening for a long time.
    Maybe that phrase that keeps getting dredged up when we want to stop a certain destructive practice or broken process; you know, the one about loss of jobs. That’s a weak argument for staying the course. But it must be effective because they keep planting this BS in the media. There’s a garbage company that comes to mind when I think about the bean counters who toil in contract procurement at the MIC….
    Waste Management

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  5. You have high hopes for an empire characterized by defective philosophical motivations; a deceitful basic law; a toxic religious tradition; a ruling class of delusional racketeers; and a subject class comprised (mostly) of petty money grubbers, louts, drug addicts, sportsball fans, cultists, video gamers, etc. Sure enough, Columbia’s record of money, banking, and government finance has never been particularly honorable. In fact, the secession from the Kingdom of Great Britain (another habitual gangster) involved shady dealings like the funny money called the Continental.

    Hamilton was prescient in his suspicion, expressed in the very first paragraph of Federalist No. 1, that “a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.” So let’s summon the courage to admit that the USA was born bad—like the mendacious Pretender. Then we cease to be traumatized by the F-35 program, which is a symptom of Columbia’s nature, and of ancient human vices allowed to run wild here for centuries.

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