Over the next 20 months, a clown-car-full of Republican politicians will vie for their party’s presidential nomination. As the candidates crisscross the nation, each will undoubtedly call for smarter, leaner, and (hopefully) smaller government. However, there is one government program that, despite being a paragon of government incompetence and mind-bending fiscal incontinence, will most likely be ignored by these champions of budgetary temperance: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In so doing, these Republicans will abandon their principles and continue a long, bipartisan tradition of perpetuating the broader problems with U.S. defense spending that the troubled jet symbolizes.
During the Obama years, the Republican Party magically rediscovered its commitment—at least rhetorically—to limited government and fiscal sanity. Criticizing the graft, incompetence, and cost of boondoggles like the 2009 stimulus bill, green-energy subsidies, or Obamacare, GOP politicians not only highlighted these programs’ specific failings, but also often explained how such problems were the inevitable result of an unwieldy federal government that lacked discipline and accountability and was inherently susceptible to capture by well-funded interest groups like unions or insurance companies.
They railed against massive bureaucracies, like the Department of Energy, that paid off cronies with scant congressional oversight. And, in the case of well-publicized debacles like the botched, billion-dollar Healthcare.gov roll-out, many Republicans were quick to note that the root of the problem lay not in one glitchy website, but the entire federal procurement process, and even Big Government itself:
Back in March, Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican and outspoken critic of the HealthCare.gov rollout, introduced the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, which would give agency CIOs more control over their budgets….The bill would go a long way toward fixing IT contracting problems, Issa has said. In a Dec. 4 hearing, Issa suggested the problem with HealthCare.gov is related to an additional layer of rules and technology on top of the U.S. private insurance industry.
HealthCare.gov was ‘not a disaster of the making of one man or any one person,’ he said then. ‘In fact, in many ways it is a sign of a failed system that is often seen in the federal government.’
Issa and his GOP colleagues’ criticism of Healthcare.gov and the broken, cronyist U.S. procurement bureaucracy were both accurate and precisely what limited-government advocates, backed by public-choice economics, have warned about for decades. Big Government, and in particular the administrative state, is incapable of managing large-scale projects over the long term without inevitably enriching cronies, breeding corruption, producing sub-par products and services, and, of course, wasting gobs and gobs of taxpayer dollars in the process. The examples of such failures extend to all corners of U.S. domestic policy, from health care to financial services to agriculture and everywhere in between.
Defense Contracting Is Not an Exception to Big Government’s Problems
One wonders, however, if these Republicans’ philosophical understanding of Big Government’s inherent weaknesses extends to national defense and, in particular, the F-35. According to the latest (2012) estimate from the Pentagon, the total cost to develop, buy and operate the F-35 will be $1.45 trillion—yes, trillion, with a “t”—over the next 50 years, up from a measly $1 trillion estimated in 2011. For those of you keeping score at home, this means that the F-35’s lifetime cost grew about $450 billion in one year. (Who says inflation is dead?)
That number—$1.45 trillion—might be difficult to grasp, especially in the context of U.S. defense spending, so let me try to put it in perspective: the entire Manhattan Project, which took around three years and led to the development of the atom bomb, cost a total of $26 billion (2015), most of which went to “building factories and producing the fissile materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons.” By contrast, the F-35 will cost $29 billion. Per year.
For the next 50 years.
Indeed, just the 12-month increase ($450 billion) in the F-35’s lifetime estimate means that the fighter system’s cost grew by approximately one Manhattan Project every three weeks between 2011 and 2012. Granted, A-bombs are far different from fighter jets—for example, bombs don’t need maintenance after use—but these differences shouldn’t obscure the F-35’s simply astounding impact on the U.S. federal budget.
F-35s Have Massive Technical Problems
These crazy numbers still might be justifiable if the F-35 were part of a near-flawless weapons system that is destined to guarantee U.S. air superiority for the next half-century. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the F-35 has been plagued by problem after problem. A 2013 Vanity Fair long-read depressingly explored the plane’s long history of technical and budgetary failures, and of enriching U.S. defense contractors, and showed that the project couldn’t provide a better case study in public-choice theory and regulatory capture if it were invented by James Buchannan himself.
Since that piece was published, the F-35 has had even more problems. For example, in July 2014, Reuters reported that “[t]he U.S. military has grounded all its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters following an incident on June 23, when one of the high-tech warplanes caught fire on the runway of a Florida air base.” The no-fly order affected “at least 50 F-35s at training and test bases in Florida, Arizona, California and Maryland” and resulted from a longstanding design flaw related to the plane’s immense weight:
‘The F-35 is double-inferior,’ John Stillion and Harold Scott Perdue concluded in their written summary of the war game, later leaked to the press. The new plane ‘can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run,’ they warned.
Yet the F-35 is on track to become by far the military’s most numerous warplane.
Then, in December of last year, perhaps my favorite F-35 report emerged:
According to the USAF, the troubled fighter cannot use gas from standard green colored USAF fuel trucks if it has been sitting in the sun. Considering that these jets will most likely find themselves operating in the desert or in somewhere in the scorching Pacific, this is a big problem.
Sadly, the answer for the F-35’s fuel finicky conundrum, one of many heat related issues with the jets since their testing began, is being addressed outside of the F-35 aircraft itself, in the form of repainting standard USAF fuel trucks with bright white solar reflective paint.
You cannot make this stuff up. The F-35’s constant problems actually would be pretty funny if, you know, it weren’t for the fact that the system is robbing American taxpayers and jeopardizing our national security in the process.
You Can Support a Strong Defense And Not Wasteful Spending
I don’t mean to harp on the F-35, however. Instead, it’s simply one of many examples (I admit, probably the worst) of the systemic problems facing U.S. military procurement and spending—problems caused by the same fundamental issues with Big Government that Republicans constantly raise in the domestic policy sphere. These include byzantine bureaucracy; outdated laws; cronyism and regulatory capture; waste, fraud, and abuse; and, of course, massive overspending during an era of supposed fiscal restraint.
To be clear, these concerns have nothing to do with whether one is a foreign policy hawk or dove—even the neoconniest of interventionist can and should hope that U.S tax dollars are being efficiently spent on the most capable of military systems (more bombs for fewer dollars, yay!). But they’re not, as the F-35 debacle makes abundantly clear, and the administrative state’s inherent flaws are the most obvious reason why. Thus, one must ask whether Republicans’ much-deserved skepticism of government intervention in domestic policy will extend to national defense and a military procurement system that’s been broken for decades (see this humorous take from the 1998 film, “The Pentagon Wars,” for more).
The F-35 will cost about 29 Healthcare.govs per year for the next half-century, yet the vast majority of “fiscal hawk” Republicans remain silent on the plane and obviously-broken system that produced it. So far, it seems that no GOP presidential candidate, outside of perhaps Sen. Rand Paul, will raise these issues and turn the same critical, reformist eye to defense spending as they do to domestic spending and clusterfarks like Healthcare.gov. Perhaps another high-profile F-35 failure will force them to confront the procurement system’s fundamental flaws, but I’m not holding my breath. For almost all U.S. politicians, it seems, fiscal restraint and Big Government skepticism stop at the water’s edge.