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America's trillion-dollar boondoggle

Published September 15, 2012 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

By Ole r. holsti

In his 1961 "Farewell Address," President Dwight Eisenhower warned, "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Eisenhower passed away in 1969 but his insights remain relevant, as illustrated by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, America's first trillion-dollar weapons program. The Air Force lists Hill Air Force Base as a preferred choice among active-duty bases to host an F-35 operational mission.

The F-35 originated in a 1990 development contract. In October 2001 Lockheed-Martin signed a production contract, having prevailed over a competing bid by Boeing's X-32, to produce 2,866 aircraft for $233 billion in three versions: F-35A conventional-takeoff aircraft, F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft, and F-35C carrier-based aircraft.

The F-35 program has had a troubled history. In 2010 the Pentagon disclosed that delays and cost overruns had resulted in a cost per aircraft that exceeded the original contract by 50 percent. Defense Secretary Robert Gates informed Congress of another 13 month production delay and budget increase of $3 billion. A 2011 Pentagon study cited 13 major problems. The F-35 integrated power package was described as unreliable and difficult to service. There were safety concerns about lightning protection and thermal management, as well as possible fire hazards in the fuel dump system. The study also revealed that the airframe was unlikely to last through the lifespan of the aircraft.

If the F-35 were indispensable to the country's future security, cost considerations would properly take a back seat, but that is not the case. A Foreign Policy magazine survey of 76 top military experts in 2012 revealed that 26 of them rated the F-35 program as the top candidate for immediate elimination.

John Arquilla of the Naval Post-Graduate School said, "We have had only one fighter shot down by an enemy fighter jet in the last 40 years. We simply don't need to spend over a trillion dollars on a new fighter at this point."

These experts listed global warming, pandemics, cyber-warfare, terrorism, political instability, weapons of mass destruction and economic crises as the top security threats. However one rank-orders these threats, the F-35 does not increase our ability to address them. The F-22 Raptor produced by Lockheed-Martin until 2009 is faster, more maneuverable, capable of flying at a higher altitude, and is less visible on radar. Although the F-22 has experienced problems of delivering oxygen to the pilot, an Air Force Association study judged it to be much preferable to the F-35.

What is the probability that the F-35 program will be terminated? None.

Defense contractors typically disperse subcontracts to as many congressional districts as possible. In a rare example of bipartisan cooperation in Congress, a caucus of 49 members led by Kay Granger, R-Texas, and Norm Dicks, D-Wash., pledged to protect the F-35. Lockheed-Martin has distributed $1.3 million in campaign contributions, including $120,000 to Granger, $97,000 to Dicks, $144,250 to Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., and $129,950 to Joe Barton, R-Texas. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, is a member of the caucus.

Despite its abysmal performance on the F-35, Lockheed-Martin's net income from all its programs rose from $533 million to $2.67 billion during the decade ending in 2011, and its annual dividends increased from 44 cents to $4 per share.

Whereas the original contract called for $233 billion for 2,866 F-35s, it now calls for a smaller fleet for $385 billion, with lifetime costs exceeding $1.51 trillion. Only in late 2011 did Lockheed-Martin accept, very reluctantly, a cost-sharing agreement with the Pentagon.

If Eisenhower were alive, as a cost-conscious conservative he would no doubt unleash his legendary temper about the F-35 fiasco.

Ole R. Holsti is George V. Allen Professor of International Affairs, Emeritus, Duke University.