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.