At a projected lifetime price tag of $1.45 trillion dollars, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has secured its place as the most expensive weapons system in the history of mankind. It’s easy to look at a price tag like $1.45 trillion and recognize it as a big number, but without context, it can be difficult to truly grasp just how big it is. After all, when discussing significant expenditures like defense, large numbers in the billions and even trillions can be tossed about with some regularity. So just how expensive is the F-35? Let’s compare it to some other government projects for clarity.
NASA’s annual budget is $18.4 billion. Mars rovers, satellites, telescopes, and the entire administrative infrastructure of our nation’s space program is all encompassed in that $18.4 billion figure. The overall price tag on the F-35 (a single aircraft platform) is a whopping 76 times our nation’s annual expenditures on space science.
If we were to try to pay for the entirety of the F-35 program in a single year, it would account for 41 percent of the entire federal budget. Note: Not the defense budget, but the whole federal budget.
Now, I’m a supporter of defense spending. My initial reaction when I hear about a new trillion-dollar military aircraft is excitement; after all, just imagine how such a vehicle could change the way we fight the world over. Surely an aircraft of such magnitude could replace aging platforms like the workhorse A-10 or the Harrier jets my friends in the air wing are constantly complaining about having to keep patched together. I’m not in charge of determining how we spend our money, I’m just excited to see what we spend it on. So imagine my disappointment when reports started surfacing about how ineffective and issue-ridden the F-35 is proving to be. For $1.4 trillion, I was expecting to see a Star Wars-style spaceship, but a search for the fighter provides a very different story.
The aircraft has been riddled with issues throughout production, causing dramatic delays and budget overruns. Worse, because the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin agreed to reduce costs by beginning production on the plane before testing was complete, the issues that have been identified throughout testing cost even more to address in the planes Lockheed has already completed. Because of issues like these, full-scale production of F-35s, which was supposed to begin in 2012, has now been pushed back to 2019. These delays are particularly costly, as the military had slated the F-35 to replace a number of aging aircraft already. Original plans called for 1,013 fully functional F-35s to be in service in 2016. Current figures place that total at only 179.
So if the plane is riddled with problems, surrounded by controversy, and costs enough to put an Air Force base on Mars, why continue the program? From my perspective, it’s good politics.
Each F-35 is built using components sourced from 45 of our 50 states, creating jobs throughout the nation and adding money to local economies from California to Maine. The politicians who make these decisions weren’t on the market for a waste of taxpayer dollars, they were looking at a weapon’s platform that promised to maintain American air superiority for years to come while simultaneously creating jobs for Americans in their respective regions. If I had been asked to vote on the program, I would have voted in favor of it with exclamation marks on the ballot. Improving our nation’s defenses while creating jobs in the private sector is a difficult proposition to argue against.
Currently, the phrase “too big to fail” is being used to describe the F-35 in a number of media outlets. This not-so-subtle comparison to the bank bailouts of 2008 isn’t entirely unfounded. The United States has now invested so much money into the F-35 that we can’t permit it to fail. This leaves us in the uncomfortable position of having to make the platform work, even if its currently not living up to expectations.
The F-35 may still prove to be the fighter of the future, but getting it there is likely to cost the American people quite a bit more money along the way. While it’s easy to be critical of the program’s shortcomings, I can’t say I would have had the foresight to vote against the expenditures in the past—and it’s important now that we continue to approve them in the future. The future of American military aviation, at least for now, is inextricably tied to the success of the F-35, so I’m rooting for it to be the success our nation needs it to be.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons