- - Thursday, June 20, 2019


President Trump is growing the defense budget now, but even he would agree that will become increasingly difficult as time goes on, the population ages and the costs of entitlements and interest on the $20 trillion debt consume ever-increasing shares of the federal budget.

So, at some point, we’ll need to develop principles to guide decisions on what to cut and what to strengthen. At the top of the list should be: Don’t spend a dime on anything the military does not say it needs for its mission.

Certainly, such a policy is in place given past funding downturns, you say? Not quite. Earlier this week, the House Armed Services Committee proposed in its annual defense-funding legislation to purchase 90 F-35 fighter jets — 12 more than the Pentagon requested. This includes 60 for the Air Force, 10 for the Marines and 20 for use on aircraft carriers.

This at a time when the F-35’s moment may have passed. The program began in the early 2000s from the premise that all threats were more less the same, and interoperability — among branches of the service and even with allies that can buy their own versions of the F-35 — was king.

So strong was the view that the plane was the answer to the military’s modern fighter-jet challenges that dozens were purchased before testing had been completed. The results have been devastating.

The F-35 became, in the words of Popular Mechanics magazine, “the symbol of everything that’s wrong with mammoth defense contracts: behind schedule, over budget, and, initially, oversold.”

The Government Accountability Office warned the Pentagon that producing the plane while it was still being developed would incur tremendous costs as planes had to be retrofitted with the newer equipment, and, by 2013, the government estimated that $1.7 billion had been spent on retrofitting F-35s, as the GAO predicted.

It took 18 years for it even to be declared operational, and still only about half the planes are operational on any given day because of mechanical and other problems.

F-35s are supposed to be good for 8,000 flight hours. A recent Department of Defense report the average service life of the Marine version of the plane was as low as 2,100 hours.

It didn’t meet its reliability goals, which meant fewer aircraft available for training, and several vulnerabilities identified by cybersecurity testing have not been remedied. Japan suspended use of its F-35s after a member of its air force went missing in April.

The F-35 air-to-ground attack systems don’t seem to be able to hit their targets. The Department of Defense declared the accuracy of the weapons to be “unacceptable.”

To make matters worse, the price is going up as Lockheed Martin scrambles to address the plane’s weakness. Total acquisition costs this year are expected to be $428.4 billion, up from $406.2 billion last year — a 5.5 percent increase. Of course, the F-35 program is no stranger to cost overruns.

This can’t be blamed on the Trump administration. President Trump promised during his transition to save taxpayers billions of dollars by reforming the program. “The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” he tweeted in December 2016. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”

Why, if the Pentagon doesn’t want all 90 F-35s, if the Trump administration considers them a bad deal and if their reliability might have decreased, does the CEO of Lockheed tell investors “If they chose to have an order on F-15 it won’t be at the expense of F-35 quantities” and that he is “hearing that directly from the leadership at the Pentagon not just our suspicion, but I’ve been told directly” that quantities won’t be reduced?

That is a good question for the Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee. Why is the CEO so sure a measure the Trump administration opposes will receive full funding? Is this to benefit the mission of defending the country? Or are other motives at stake?

• Brian McNicoll, a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia, is a former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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