Wednesday, June 5th, 2013
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a textbook case of a Pentagon procurement project that reveals why it is difficult to cut the defence budget. Three versions of the F-35 are being built for the Air Force, Navy and Marines by Lockheed Martin, the largest defence contractor in the US. The F-35 is the most expensive military weapons programme in US history, bigger than the Manhattan Project that produced nuclear weapons.
The F-35 was sold as a programme that would cost $226bn for about 2,900 aircrafts. It is now seven years behind schedule, and the price has increased almost 100 percent to $400bn for only 2,400 fighters. At least another $1 trillion will be required for operations and maintenance of the F-35 over its lifetime.
Pierre Sprey, an aircraft engineer and analyst who was one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s ‘whizz kids’ in the 1960s, believes that the project should be cancelled or “there will be so little money left over for anything that’s needed, it’ll be unbelievable. They’ll be cutting people, pilots, training, everything just to pay for this thing.”
Chuck Spinney, who worked as an analyst in the US secretary of defence’s office for 26 years, believes it is difficult for the United States to reap the benefits of a peace dividend because of the workings of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his final 1961 address.
“It’s what in Washington we call an iron triangle,” Spinney says, ” you have an alliance between the private sector, the defence contractors, the executive branch, in this case the Pentagon, and the legislative branch.”
Everyone benefits from expensive procurement projects – the Pentagon gets weapons, defence companies get to make profits, and politicians get re-elected by funding armaments that generate jobs for constituents and campaign contributions from defence companies.
The result, according to Spinney, is a defence budget “that is packed to the gills with weapons we don’t need, with weapons that are underestimated in their future costs”.
The Pentagon and defence contractors low-ball costs and exaggerate performance in the early stages of a project to “turn on the money spigot”. Then the companies engage in “political engineering,” they spread the contracts and employment for a weapon around to as many Congressional districts as possible. They do that, Spinney says, so that once cost-overruns and performance problems become apparent, “you can’t do anything about it [because] there’s too much political support”.