- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2012

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the white whale of the Defense Department — a stealth jet designed to work for all branches of the armed forces — but at a total cost of $1.5 trillion, it’s also a program that analysts say is an epic boondoggle that neither President Obama nor his GOP challenger, Mitt Romney, has a realistic plan to get under control.

What’s worse is that the F-35 is just the tip of the iceberg in what many describe as a sea of waste and mismanagement surrounding the weapons acquisition system at the Pentagon. Even the department’s inspector general says it simply cannot be audited.

“I’ve been involved in this since the ‘60s and I’ve never seen it so badly managed as it was up until very recently,” said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.

“The cost overruns are unprecedented,” he said, explaining that the problem stems from a failure of several successive administrations to appoint a deputy secretary of defense with the kind of hard-core business sense needed to root out nepotism and tighten the screws on profligate spending.

Both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama talk tough about getting a handle on Pentagon waste, but if the F-35 is any indication, they will have a tough time following through.

“Basically, you need to establish clear lines of accountability” for weapons programs, ... more >

In January, Mr. Romney was working a phone bank at his headquarters in New Hampshire and talked with one potential voter about the F-35, according to a report in Politico.

“I was a little disappointed to see the president pull back on the F-35 program,” Mr. Romney said.

His campaign now dismisses questions about what Mr. Romney intended by that remark and said he would tackle cost issues with the F-35 the same way he would go after other Pentagon waste — by holding officials accountable for poorly managed projects.

“Basically, you need to establish clear lines of accountability. There are too many people who are responsible for these programs, and the problem is that nobody’s responsible,” said Jim Talent, a former senator from Missouri who has served on the House and Senate Armed Services committees and is now a special adviser to the Romney campaign.

The lack of accountability, Mr. Talent said, creates a kind of fog around particular acquisition programs, which allows officials to request excessive changes to the requirements that companies are trying to meet for particular projects.

“More requirement creep and less accountability produces acquisition programs that cost too much and take too much time.”

The Obama administration is all too aware of those problems when it comes to the F-35.

As defense secretary, Robert M. Gates attempted to address them in 2010 by firing the program manager, Brig. Gen. David Heinz. Mr. Obama fought with Congress to end production of an alternate engine and, thanks to a veto threat and a change in the makeup of Congress, ultimately zeroed out funding.

The administration also began trimming the number of F-35s that the Pentagon initially planned to buy from Lockheed Martin Corp. — a move that the Romney campaign criticizes as shortsighted.

“If you cut the number you’re going to buy, then you have to spread the upfront costs across a smaller number of final product,” Mr. Talent said.

Story Continues →