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.
Imagine you’re a soldier in combat. What’s the most important feature of any weapon system? That it works. That it’s reliable. Nobody wants a weapon that jams in a firefight. Reliability, simplicity, ruggedness are key features of weaponry. Yet the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex seem to specialize in unreliable, complex, fragile ones. Ones that don’t work, or that don’t work very well, and at inflated prices as well. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch, and here’s an excerpt from it:
Cancel culture is a common, almost viral, term in political and social discourse these days. Basically, somebody expresses views considered to be outrageous or vile or racist or otherwise insensitive and inappropriate. In response, that person is “canceled,” perhaps losing a job or otherwise sidelined and silenced. In being deplatformed by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for instance, this country’s previous president has, it could be argued, been canceled — at least by polite society. More than a few might add, good riddance.
Cancel culture is all around us, with a single glaring exception: the U.S. military. No matter how poorly a major weapons system performs, no matter how much it goes over budget, no matter how long it takes to field, it almost never gets canceled. As a corollary to this, no matter how poorly a general performs in one of our twenty-first-century wars, no matter his lack of victories or failure to achieve mission objectives, he almost never gets cashiered, demoted, or even criticized. A similar thing could be said of America’s twenty-first-century wars themselves. They are disasters that simply never get canceled. They just go on and on and on.
Is it any surprise, then, that a system which seems to eternally reward failure consistently produces it as well? After all, if cancel culture should apply anywhere, it would be to faulty multibillion-dollar weapons systems and more than a few generals, who instead either get booted upstairs to staff positions or retire comfortably onto the boards of directors of major weapons companies.
Let’s take a closer look at several major weapons systems that are begging to be canceled — and a rare case of one that finally was.
* The F-35 stealth fighter: I’ve writtenextensively on the F-35 over the years. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the plane was at one point seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget. Nonetheless, the U.S. military persisted and it is now nearing full production at a projected total cost of $1.7 trillion by the year 2070. Even so, nagging problems persist, including engine difficulties and serious maintenance deficiencies. Even more troubling: the plane often can’t be cleared for flying if lightning is anywhere in the area, which is deeply ironic, given that it’s called the Lightning II. Let’s hope that there are no thunderstorms in the next war.
* The Boeing KC-46 tanker: A tanker is basically a flying gas station, air-to-air refueling being something the Air Force mastered half a century ago. Never underestimate the military’s ability to produce new problems while pursuing more advanced technology, however. Doing away with old-fashioned windows and an actual airman as a “boom operator” in the refueling loop (as in a legacy tanker like the KC-135), the KC-46 uses a largely automated refueling system via video. Attractive in theory, that system has yet to work reliably in practice. (Maybe, it will, however, by the year 2024, the Air Force now says.) And what good is a tanker that isn’t assured of actually transferring fuel in mid-air and turns out to be compromised as well by its own fuel leaks? The Air Force is now speaking of “repurposing” its new generation of tankers for missions other than refueling. That’s like me saying that I’m repurposing my boat as an anchor since it happened to spring a leak and sink to the bottom of the lake.
* And speaking of boats, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the Navy has had serious problems of its own with its most recent Gerald R.Ford-class aircraft carriers. That service started building carriers in the 1920s, so one might imagine that, by now, the brass had gained some mastery of the process of updating them and building new ones. But never underestimate the allure of cramming unproven and expensive technologies for “next generation” success on board such vessels. Include among them, when it comes to the Ford-class carriers, elevators for raising munitions that notoriously don’t operate well and a catapult system for launching planes from the deck (known as the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System or EMALS) that’s constantly breaking down. As you might imagine, not much can happen on an aircraft carrier when you can’t load munitions or launch planes effectively. Each new Ford-class carrier costs in the neighborhood of $14 billion, yet despite all that money, it simply “isn’t very good at actually being a carrier,” as an article in Popular Mechanics magazine bluntly put it recently. Think of it as the KC-46 of the seas.
* And speaking of failing ships, let’s not forget the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), which have earned the nickname “little crappy ships.” A serious propulsion design flaw may end up turning them into “floating garbage piles,” defense journalist Jared Keller recently concluded. The Navy bought 10 of them for roughly half a billion dollars each, with future orders currently on hold. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor, the same one responsible for the wildly profligate (and profitable) F-35.
* Grimly for the Navy, problems were so severe with its Zumwalt-class of stealth destroyers that the program was actually canceled after only three ships had been built. (The Navy initially planned to build 32 of them.) Critiqued as a vessel in search of a mission, the Zumwalt-class was also bedeviled by problems with its radar and main armament. In total, the Navy spent $22 billion on a failed “next generation” concept whose cancelation offers us that utter rarity of our moment: a weapon so visibly terrible that even the military-industrial complex couldn’t continue to justify it.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday has gone on record as rejecting the idea of integrating exotic, largely untried and untested technologies into new ship designs (known in the biz as “concurrent development”). Godspeed, admiral!
Much like the troubled F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt’s spiraling costs were due in part to the Pentagon’s fixation on integrating just such “leading-edge” technologies into designs that themselves were in flux. (Not for nothing do military wags refer to them as bleeding edge technologies.) Such wildly ambitious concurrent development, rather than saving time and money, tends to waste plenty of both, leading to ultra-expensive less-than-fully effective weapons like the Zumwalt, the original version of which had a particularly inglorious breakdown while passing through (or rather not passing through) the Panama Canal in November 2016.
Given such expensive failures, you might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the twenty-first century, while fighting never-ending disastrous wars across significant parts of the planet, America’s military isn’t also actively working to disarm itself. Seriously, if we’re truly talking about weapons that are vital to national defense, failure shouldn’t be an option, but far too often it is.
With this dubious record, one might imagine the next class of Navy vessel could very well be named for Philip Francis Queeg, the disturbed and incompetent ship captain of novelist Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny. It’s also quite possible that the Pentagon’s next advanced fighter jet will fulfill former Martin Marietta CEO Norman Augustine’s estimate from the 1980s that, by the year 2054, the entire Pentagon budget would be needed to buy one — and only one – combat aircraft. Perhaps a Death Star for America’s new Space Force?
My latest article for TomDispatch.com focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program. I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program. Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons? But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump. But there’s always money for weapons! We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.
A Brief History of the F-35 Program
I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed. The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)
The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.
In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.
Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversy. Harper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility. The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.”
So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.
These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance. In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.
Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.) The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.
Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)
As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.
To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission. It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.
And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers? Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter? To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest. Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.
I grew up in the Catholic Church, where I professed my faith weekly at every mass I attended. I also grew up a fan of the U.S. military, even as I read many books critical of its performance in the Vietnam War. Thankfully, I didn’t have to profess my faith in that military, but if I had, what would such a “profession” have looked like? This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which you can read about here.
Here’s what I believe America’s profession of faith would look like at this moment in our militarized history:
* We believe in wars. We may no longer believe in formal declarations of war (not since December 1941 has Congress made one in our name), but that sure hasn’t stopped us from waging them. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the Cold War to the War on Terror, and so many military interventions in between, including Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, Americans are always fighting somewhere as if we saw great utility in thumbing our noses at the Prince of Peace. (That’s Jesus Christ, if I remember my Catholic catechism correctly.)
* We believe in weaponry, the more expensive the better. The underperforming F-35 stealth fighter may cost $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. An updated nuclear triad (land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers) may cost that already mentioned $1.7 trillion. New (and malfunctioning) aircraft carriers cost us more than $10 billion each. And all such weaponry requests get funded, with few questions asked, despite a history of their redundancy, ridiculously high price, regular cost overruns, and mediocre performance. Meanwhile, Americans squabble bitterly over a few hundred million dollars for the arts and humanities.
* We believe in weapons of mass destruction. We believe in them so strongly that we’re jealous of anyone nibbling at our near monopoly. As a result, we work overtime to ensure that infidels and atheists (that is, the Iranians and North Koreans, among others) don’t get them. In historical terms, no country has devoted more research or money to deadly nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry than the United States. In that sense, we’ve truly put our money where our mouths are (and where a devastating future might be).
* We believe with missionary zeal in our military and seek to establish our “faith” everywhere. Hence, our global network of perhaps 800 overseas military bases. We don’t hesitate to deploy our elite missionaries, our equivalent to the Jesuits, the Special Operations forces to more than 130 countries annually. Similarly, the foundation for what we like to call foreign assistance is often military training and foreign military sales. Our present supreme leader, Pope Trump I, boasts of military sales across the globe, most notably to the infidel Saudis. Even when Congress makes what, until recently, was the rarest of attempts to rein in this deadly trade in arms, Pope Trump vetoes it. His rationale: weapons and profits should rule all.
* We believe in our college of cardinals, otherwise known as America’s generals and admirals. We sometimes appoint them (or anoint them?) to the highest positions in the land. While Trump’s generals — Michael Flynn, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly — have fallen from grace at the White House, America’s generals and admirals continue to rule globally. They inhabit proconsul-like positions in sweeping geographical commands that (at least theoretically) cover the planet and similarly lead commands aimed at dominating the digital-computer realm and special operations. One of them will head a new force meant to dominate space through time eternal. A “strategic” command (the successor to the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, so memorably satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) continues to ensure that, at some future moment, the U.S. will be able to commit mass genocide by quite literally destroying the world with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Pope Trump recently boasted that he could end America’s Afghan War in a week, apparently through the mass nuclear genocide of (his figure) 10 million Afghans. Even as he then blandly dismissed the idea of wiping that country “off the face of the earth,” he openly reflected the more private megalomania of those military professionals funded by the rest of us to think about “the unthinkable.” In sum, everything is — theoretically at least — under the thumbs of our unelected college of cardinals. Their overblown term for it is “full-spectrum dominance,” which, in translation, means they grant themselves god-like powers over our lives and that of our planet (though the largely undefeated enemies in their various wars don’t seem to have acknowledged this reality).
* We believe that freedom comes through obedience. Those who break ranks from our militarized church and protest, like Chelsea Manning, are treated as heretics and literally tortured.
* We believe military spending brings wealth and jobs galore, even when it measurably doesn’t. Military production is both increasingly automated and increasingly outsourced, leading to far fewer good-paying American jobs compared to spending on education, infrastructure repairs of and improvements in roads, bridges, levees, and the like, or just about anything else for that matter.
* We believe, and our most senior leaders profess to believe, that our military represents the very best of us, that we have the “finest” one in human history.
* We believe in planning for a future marked by endless wars, whether against terrorism or “godless” states like China and Russia, which means our military church must be forever strengthened in the cause of winning ultimate victory.
* Finally, we believe our religion is the one true faith. (Just as I used to be taught that the Catholic Church was the one true church and that salvation outside it was unattainable.) More pacific “religions” are dismissed as weak, misguided, and exploitative. Consider, for example, the denunciation of NATO countries that refuse to spend more money on their militaries. Such a path to the future is heretical; therefore, they must be punished.
Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com. And please comment. Did I miss anything in my version of America’s militarized profession of faith?
What America’s National Security State Got Wrong in Its Wars of Choice and How to Deconstruct the War State
I’m a Washington outsider/non-careerist who worked seven years as a civilian advisor in our country’s Wars of Choice in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier in my life, I served in and worked for the military-industrial complex. I have lived, worked and traveled throughout Europe and the Greater Middle East. Given this background, I’ve written a book (Will We Ever Learn?) recounting from personal knowledge how our nation’s interventionist foreign policy and military adventurism has transformed the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 into today’s unimaginable $1.25 trillion/year national security establishment. This enterprise operates as a de facto shadow government apart from our representative democracy. It perpetuates a bipartisan war culture driven by defense industry lobbyists and special interests. Our burgeoning multi-agency “War State” is the primary reason for Congress’ $1-trillion-plus/year budget deficits and our country’s $22 trillion in national debt.
As I document in my book, $7.5 trillion of the $12 trillion increase in our national debt since 9/11 is attributable to increases in defense spending mainly related to the War on Terror. I can attest that the trillions spent on these idiotic wars was a waste of taxpayers’ money. Much worse, they created over 6,000 Gold Star parents and tens of thousands of maimed and PTSD-stricken brave patriots. Yet, overspending on our military goes on – even as War on Terror proponents admit Americans are less safe today. Most political leaders responsible for our recent wars and their funding – and the pundits who advocated for them – are still around as esteemed figures in Washington. No four-star generals – company men one and all — were held accountable for the DoD’s egregious mistakes in warfighting strategy and tactics that I document in my book.
The swamp creatures who rule over Washington’s war culture know they must maintain our War State as an expanding $1.25 trillion/year enterprise (including what I estimate to be $250 billion/year for nuclear-war deterrence) to stay in power – regardless of how much national debt they run up and how many Gold Star parents, maimed soldiers, and PTSD cases result from their military adventurism. Congressional leadership supports the War State because both parties receive massive campaign funding to maintain the status quo from corporate lobbyists and big donors. This insiders’ money game is not the America my Uncle Norb – who I never knew because he was killed storming the beach at Eniwetok Atoll as a 19-year-old Marine in 1944 – died fighting to preserve as member of our nation’s greatest generation.
In my book (and this essay), I identify specific changes in foreign and military policy and $500 billion/year in defense spending cuts which, if made, would make America and the world safer. These sensible and practical actions recognize the instability and trepidation that Washington’s bullying and war culture are causing around the world.
My remedies include restricting the development and proliferation of conventional weapons and eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world under a United Nations Treaty ratified in 2017 by 123 countries. This U.N. initiative followed a 2007 Wall Street Journalcommentary titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — hardly naïve isolationists. President Obama also persuasively advocated for a no-nuke world in a speech he gave in Prague in 2009. Under my plan to scale-back U.S. militarism, our country would still spend twice as much on national security as our two presumed military adversaries combined: Russia with its crumbling economy and China with its growing dissident problems. If our national security state officials can’t keep America safe with a 2:1 spending advantage over these two troubled countries, they all should be fired.
What’s a solution to this predicament that engenders our idiotic wars and is driving our country off a fiscal cliff? Simple: Empower — and require – all members of Congress, as our directly elected representatives, to make up-or-down floor votes on specific spending “tradeoffs” as a follow-on step to the current Congressional appropriations process. For example, the Democratic caucus in the House could require a tradeoff vote on cancelling funding in the DoD’s approved appropriations bill for the $1.5-trillion life-time-costs F-35 fighter program (the late Senator John McCain – hardly an anti-military pacifist — called the F-35 program “a scandal and a tragedy” at a 2016 Senate hearing ); or spending the same amount over the same timeframe for better health care, free college tuition, student debt forgiveness, and similar programs.
If a specific tradeoff challenge vote passes both Houses of Congress, it would go the President to accept or reject. A challenge could fail. But each member of Congress who voted “no” in this example would have to explain at reelection time why he or she thinks our military needs over 2,000 F-35s when Russia has zero Su-57s in service; and why he or she believes the money spent on unneeded F-35’s could not be better used to reduce the federal budget deficit (also an option in my plan) — or make college affordable for all our citizens as the tradeoff vote in this example.
These changes can all happen if voters bring up these reform initiatives at candidate forums and obtain pledges from candidates for federal office to commit to fixing Congress so it serves the interests of individual citizens — not corporate lobbyists and special interests. Getting these changes adopted may yet prevent our democracy from going down the low road to perdition.
Even as Congress fights over a few billion dollars for the 9/11 first responders, there’s no shortage of money for warplanes. This week the Pentagon announced the largest military procurement deal in history: $34 billion for 478 F-35 warplanes. This decision comes despite the less-than-stellar performance of the F-35.
How can we forget the suffering of 9/11 first responders yet continue to buy overpriced jets at mind-boggling prices? Sometimes I think we worship weapons as a golden idol. People get so excited about them – almost as if they “own” their own personal F-35. What can these warplanes do for us except blow things up? Who’s going to attack the U.S. with a vast air fleet such that we need all these planes for “defense”?
The other day, I was reading old reporting from World War II (in the Library of America series). There was an article on war rationing and how Americans were fighting for more gasoline for their personal cars. And a war ration board member referenced the amount of gas a bomber needed just to warm up its engines as the reason why ordinary Americans had to ration gas.
Imagine if Americans today had to ration gas so that our F-35s and stealth bombers could fly. Imagine if you couldn’t go on your summer vacation because you couldn’t get the gas due to the war on terror or the gas-guzzling appetites of B-52s and Navy jets operating near Iran.
Americans might actually pay attention to our foreign wars! They might begin to question why they couldn’t get gas for their cars, trucks, boats, and campers because of Iran deployments or Afghan operations or what-have-you.
But unlike in World War II, today we are asked to make no sacrifices. None. Only our tax dollars — and our collective futures.
As a candidate, Donald Trump occasionally tossed a few rhetorical grenades in the Pentagon’s general direction. He said America’s wars wasted trillions of dollars. He said he was smarter than the generals on ISIS (“Believe me!”). He said the F-35 jet fighter cost way too much, along with a planned replacement for Air Force One. He said he’d be much tougher on companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other major defense contractors.
Instead of toughness, Trump as president has proven to be the Pentagon’s lackey. Recently, he opined the Pentagon’s budget was out of control (“crazy”), and he suggested a 5% cut in fiscal year (FY) 2020. That trial balloon was shot down quickly as Trump directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to submit a record-setting $750 billion budget for FY 2020. This is roughly $50 billion more than the FY 2018 budget for “defense.”
Trump’s big boost in spending put me to mind of a famous quip by Winston Churchill in the days of “Dreadnought” battleships. Prior to World War I, Britain was squabbling over how many of these very expensive battleships needed to be built to deter Germany and to keep command of the seas. Churchill’s famous quip:
“The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.”
In this case, the Pentagon had postured they needed roughly $733 billion in FY 2020, Trump had suggested $700 billion, and they compromised on $750 billion.
Once again, Trump proves his mastery of “the art of the deal.” Not.
Though it’s unconfirmed that Congressman Everett M. Dirksen ever uttered perhaps the most famous words attributed to him: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money,” the sentiment surely needs to be updated for America’s profligate military moment. Replace “billion” with “trillion” and you have the perfect catchphrase for today’s Pentagon.
Consider the following facts:
The F-35 jet fighter is projected to cost $1.45 trillion over the life of the program.
Modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is projected to cost $1.2 trillion, though some estimates suggest $1.7 trillion as the more likely sum.
America’s Afghan War has already cost $1 trillion. Add to that another $45+ billion to support war ops for this year, and perhaps the same amount of spending each year for the next decade.
A low-ball estimate for America’s Iraq War is $1 trillion, but when one adds in veterans health care and similar long-term issues, the cost rises into the $2-3 trillion range.
Each year, spending on the Pentagon, Homeland Security, wars, nuclear weapons, the VA, and interest on the national debt associated with previous military spending approaches $1 trillion.
We’re talking about real money, right?
Yet all this spending is scarcely debated within Congress. Together with the Trump administration, Congress is a rubber stamp for the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Congress will fight tooth and nail over a few million dollars to support the arts, humanities, and similar “wasteful” programs. Planned Parenthood is always under attack, despite the paltry sum they receive (roughly half a billion) to provide vital functions for women’s health. Even the $200 billion promised by Trump to support infrastructure improvements is a trickle of money compared to the gusher of funds dedicated to the Pentagon and all of its exotic WMD.
People laughed at Bernie Sanders when he proposed health care for all and free education in state colleges. That socialist fool! America can’t afford that! Indeed, much better for people to go into debt as they struggle to pay for health care or college. That’s private enterprise and “freedom” for you. Own the debt and you can own the world.
No — Bernie Sanders wasn’t crazy. America could easily afford universal health care and virtually free education at state colleges and universities. Our elites simply choose not to consider these proposals, let alone fund them. But more nukes? More wars? More jets and subs and tanks? Right this way, my boy!
All these trillions for weapons and wars — one thing is certain: “freedom,” as they say, sure isn’t free.
Update (2/27/18): At TomDispatch.com, Bill Hartung goes into greater detail on the Pentagon’s massive budget for 2018 and 2019. As he notes: “The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon’s own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted’ — a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.”
The title of Hartung’s article sums it up: The Pentagon Budget as Corporate Welfare for Weapons Makers.
Put succinctly, it’s warfare as welfare — and wealth-care — for the military-industrial complex.
Candidate Trump occasionally said unconventional things about the Pentagon and America’s wars. He attacked the Pentagon for wasteful spending; cost overruns on the F-35 jet fighter were a favorite target. He attacked the Iraq and Afghan wars as wasteful, asserting they’d cost trillions of dollars without aiding the U.S. in any measurable way. He argued for friendlier relations with Russia, a détente of sort compared to the policies followed by the Obama administration. Naturally, even as he declaimed against America’s wasteful wars and costly weaponry, he promised to fund the military generously. Finally, he wasn’t afraid to take America’s generals to task, asserting he knew more than they did about war and foreign policy.
President Trump is a different man. “His” generals have brought him under control. Criticism of the F-35 has gone away. Trump, even if reluctantly, has embraced the Afghan war and the Pentagon’s open-ended commitment to it. Russian détente has taken a back seat to tough talk and sanctions (not that Trump had much of a choice, considering his campaign is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia). More than anything, Trump has tacitly admitted “his” generals know far more than he does. Mattis controls the Pentagon and the National Security State. Kelly, as White House Chief of Staff, does his best to control Trump. McMaster, as National Security Adviser, increasingly controls what Trump knows and when he knows it with respect to security policy.
In short, the generals have won. Consider the fates of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and John Bolton. Bannon was eased out; Gorka was fired; and Bolton, according to today’s FP: Foreign Policy report, “has been shut out of the White House under the new leadership of chief of staff John Kelly. FP’s Dan De Luce writes that several sources confirm Bolton’s regular meetings with Trump are a thing of the past, and he has been unable to deliver a plan he devised to get Washington out of the deal it signed with Tehran to halt that country’s nuclear program.”
I’m no fan of Bannon-Gorka-Bolton, but they did represent a challenge to the U.S. military and the neo-con orthodoxy that rules Washington.
Trump is now firmly under the U.S. military’s control, even as he continues to feed the beast with more money and influence. His only way out is to starve the beast — to cut its funding by cutting its mission. Fat chance of that happening anytime soon, with generals like Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster in charge.
Most in the mainstream media see this in a positive light. We read about how Trump’s generals are the adults in the room, a moderating influence on Trump’s ill-informed impetuosity. There may even be some truth to this. But here’s the rub: President Trump, at least on national security policy, has ironically morphed into Hillary Clinton. He’s become a conventional hawk with no new ideas, when as a candidate he had the temerity to criticize America’s wasteful weaponry and disastrous imperial policies.
Is Donald Trump putting coal in Lockheed Martin’s Christmas stocking?
Trump has sent another tweet about the F-35 jet fighter (Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor), this time asking Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet as a possible replacement for that jet. Trump’s tweet caused Lockheed Martin shares to dive even as Boeing shares climbed.
Trump is right to pressure Lockheed Martin on the F-35, though I’m not sure tweets are the best way to do this. I remember planning for the F-35 twenty years ago when I was on active duty in the Air Force. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to be a relatively low cost fighter/attack aircraft that would meet Air Force, Navy, and Marine needs. Back then, the flyaway cost was estimated at $40 million per plane, more expensive than the F-16 but roughly equivalent to the F-15E “Strike Eagle.” The current flyaway cost is roughly $200 million per plane,* and even higher for the Marine Corps version with its vertical landing/short takeoff capacity.
What happened? Everything went wrong as each service piled requirements onto the F-35 and all kinds of exotic features were added to it. Stealth capability. Loads of special software featuring millions of lines of code. Unique (and expensive) helmets for its pilots. Vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which drove an airframe configuration that made it less maneuverable for the Air Force. In short, the F-35 became like a Swiss army knife, featuring lots of tools and moving parts. Sure, in a pinch a Swiss army knife can be used as a screwdriver or what have you, but most of the time what you really need is the best screwdriver for the job.
The F-35 is reminiscent of another ill-fated effort to build a jet acceptable to all the services: the F-111 “swing-wing” program of the 1960s.
The Navy never deployed it, and the Air Force was never that happy with it, converting it to a fighter/bomber and an electronics warfare plane. The Navy went on to build its own fighter jet, the F-14, even as the Air Force built its fighter jet, the F-15. Then the Air Force and Navy got two decent fighter/attack jets, the F-16 and F-18, out of the lightweight fighter competition.**
Here’s the thing: Although jets like the F-15 and F-18 are not stealthy, they are very effective, especially when updated with the latest weaponry and avionics and flown by skilled pilots. Meanwhile, highly effective UAVs (drones) have emerged, e.g. Predators and Reapers, with long loiter times and no risk of U.S. casualties. To put it bluntly, does the U.S. really need the F-35, especially given its high cost and underwhelming performance?
Back to Donald Trump. Is he bluffing when he threatens to buy Boeing-made F-18s instead of the F-35? Is he posturing to get Lockheed Martin to cut the price of the F-35 (which, at this late stage of its development, may not even be possible)? One thing is certain: A lot of good American jobs are riding on Trump’s tweets. Expect Lockheed Martin to rally its Congressional allies to defend the program. The plane’s multitude of contracts were deliberately spread throughout the 50 states to gain as much Congressional support as possible.
For a little fun, go to the Lockheed Martin website at the following link:
Let’s put in Pennsylvania. Here’s what you get: 41 supplier locations, 2100 jobs, $172.5M in economic impact. How about New York? 77 suppliers, 8160 jobs, $695.2M in economic impact. How about Bernie Sanders’s state of Vermont? 3 suppliers, 1410 jobs, $124.5 million in economic impact. Small wonder that even Bernie Sanders during the campaign was an F-35 supporter.
One thing is certain: the stealthy F-35 has not evaded Trump’s radar. Whether Trump will shoot it down or simply watch it as it soars on by while burning through piles of money remains to be seen.
Note: For a more detailed report on the F-35’s performance issues, see “The F-35 Stealth Fighter May Never Be Ready for Combat: Testing report contradicts the U.S. Air Force’s rosy pronouncements,” by DAN GRAZIER & MANDY SMITHBERGER, available at this link. In short, the plane’s “requirement” to be stealthy is driving higher costs and lower performance. The plane gobbles gas so it has limited combat endurance. It’s a step backwards in effectiveness, at a much higher cost to the American taxpayer than previous planes such as the F-15, F-16, and A-10. Meanwhile, many of its missions are now filled by drones.
For a counterpoint in favor of the F-35, see this link. The F-35 has unique capabilities; it should, given its price tag. Leaving aside high cost and questionable performance, it’s vital to remember the mission. Are there really missions that only the F-35 can do, or that no plane can do as effectively? But the real case for the F-35 seems to come down to the fact that the program is simply too big to fail; the “sunk costs” are too high; its rivals are too old; and too many American jobs are dependent on it. In short, the U.S. military is stuck with the plane — and the American taxpayer is stuck with the bill.
*Estimates vary about the final flyaway cost since it’s ultimately dependent on how many F-35s are produced. Current estimates for the entire U.S. purchase are $400 billion, with another trillion dollars for maintenance and spares and related costs over the program’s lifetime.
**The most rugged and effective attack jet in the Air Force’s inventory, the A-10, was never much liked by the Air Force; generals have fought to eliminate it in favor of the much less effective F-35, but Congress has actually fought back to keep the A-10, affectionately known as the Warthog, a name and image contrary to the AF fighter pilot mystique of “eagles” and “fighting falcons.”