Congress‘ Watchdog Thinks America Can’t Afford the F-35
New report reads like a passive-aggressive letter between spouses
The F-35 is the most expensive weapon the Pentagon has ever built. Current estimates put the total cost of the jet’s maintenance and operation at more than $1 trillion.
This number is for all the jets over their entire lifespan, but it’s also just for operations and maintenance. But this amount doesn’t take into account the acquisition cost — the cash taxpayers have spent so far to design and build the damn things.
The acquisition cost is just shy of $400 billion, and the military will need more cash to finish the job, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office — Congress’ independent watchdog and reporting agency.
The 40-page report, released on April 14, is a well-researched, succinct and thorough evaluation of the problems and costs associated with the F-35 to date. The GAO has followed the F-35 for years, cataloging all its issues and shortcomings.
As a result, the report reads like a letter from a spouse to a partner who chronically overspends and starts projects it can’t finish. The watchdog even warned that if the military doesn’t get on top of its spending, it may run out of money.
“If required funding levels are not reached, the program’s procurement plan may not be affordable,” it wrote. “The consistent changes in F-35 procurement plans indicate that [the Pentagon’s] prior analyses did not adequately account for future technical and funding uncertainty.”
The GAO has followed the embattled jets for years. Back in 2010, the National Defense Authorization Act required the office to review the F-35 program every year for the next six years.
But the congressional watchdog has been sounding the alarm on the controversial jet since well before 2010. “We have reported on F-35 issues for many years,” it wrote. “Over time, we have reported significant cost, schedule, and performance problems.”
The GAO blamed the bulk of these problems on two issues.
It stated the Pentagon made decisions “without adequate product knowledge.” The watchdog added that the military wanted a new jet and wanted it fast. As a result, it didn’t take the time to properly research and design the plane before rushing it into production.
The GAO stated that the military fast-tracked the development of the F-35 by building and developing its various pieces concurrently. Too many individual departments built pieces of the jet, tested them independently, then brought them together without ever really being sure if the equipment would work.
That last bit, the concurrent development cycle, has played havoc on the F-35. The Pentagon has had to delay testing, fix cracked bulkheads and redesign busted engines — all made worse by the fact that a lot of different companies manufacture too many individual components.
For example, the jet’s airframe and engine are both part of the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin handles the airframe, but Pratt & Whitney assembles the engines in Connecticut, sells them to the Pentagon which then delivers them Lockheed. “This same highly concurrent strategy has already proven to have negatively impacted the program,” the GAO stated.
The GAO then noted that the cost of the fleet could run upward of $1 trillion over the weapons lifetime. “Which poses significant affordability challenges.”
The GAO report is a really amusing catalog of the fighter’s foibles, yes, but all those little problems feed back into one big problem — money. Americans are far from done paying for the F-35. We’re just getting started.
The way the Pentagon spins it, the F-35 is on track and it’s awesome. But that’s just not the case. The GAO noted that the jet has “around 40 percent of developmental testing remaining.” And that there will be new problems that cost more money after those additional tests.
“At the same time, DOD plans to steeply increase its procurement funding requests over the next 5 years and projects that it will need between $14 and $15 billion annually for nearly a decade,” the report explained.
That cash will account for one-quarter of the Pentagon’s budget for major defense acquisitions during the next five years. That means it’s pushing the fighter at the cost of developing other new weapons.
The military is putting a lot of its budgetary eggs in the F-35 basket, and the watchdog is skeptical the plan will work out.
“It is unlikely that the program will be able to receive and sustain such a high and unprecedented level of funding over this extended period, especially with other significant fiscal demands weighing on the nation,” the GAO stated.
The fighter is a financial albatross. The whole reason the GAO started scrutinizing it so closely is because the weapons system routinely went over budget. In 2010, the Pentagon had to convince Congress the jet was important enough to national security to keep it funded — despite the rising costs.
Since then, the military has adjusted financial expectations, budgets, goals and deadlines for the fighter on a yearly basis. Nothing about the plane or its finances is static.
“This reactionary approach indicates that [the Pentagon] may not be accurately accounting for the future technical and funding uncertainty it faces, and thus may not fully understand the affordability implications of increasing F-35 procurement funding at the planned rates,” the GAO concluded.
The watchdog agency ended its report with a list of every single time it’s written about the F-35, complete with a summary of its complaints and the Pentagon’s responses. Amusingly, it kicks off each summary by listing the Pentagon’s reported development timeline, development costs and cost per plane.
Back in 2001, the military argued that the F-35 would cost $34 billion to develop over 10 years, at a cost $69 million per plane. Last year, it estimated $55 billion over 18 years at a cost of $135 million per plane. These numbers have only ever gone up.
Just two days after the watchdog organization released its report, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan — the executive officer of the F-35 program — attempted to allay congressional fears that the weapon system is a mess.
Bogdan acknowledged to the House Armed Services Committee that there are indeed problems with the fighter, but that the program was still on the right track.
“We intend to continue leading the program with integrity, discipline, transparency and accountability,” Bogdan said. “We will hold ourselves and our program team accountable for the outcomes of this program.”
Let’s hope so. Right now, the Pentagon is paying billions to push the F-35 out the door — and will likely spend a lot more than anyone expected.