Op-Ed

The F-35 and its flight path around accountability

Recently in Fort Worth, officials from the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin and the Australian government gathered to celebrate the fact that two F-35 fighter jets bound for our ally down under were rolling off the assembly line. If you’ve followed the news about this plane over the past few years, you know it has been one of the most remarkable boondoggles we’ve ever seen – not only the most expensive weapons system in history but one plagued by disastrous problem after disastrous problem.

The remarkable lack of interest in figuring out how things could have gone so wrong with this plane, especially from people who claim to be so concerned about runaway government spending, tells you something about what a sham deficit hawkery really is.

As many have noted, when Republicans say they want to cut government spending, what they mean is they want to cut spending on programs they don’t like. You can couch it in abstract principles about the size of government and the debt we bequeath to our children, but they like some things that government does (military spending) and not others (provide a social safety net), so they want to cut the latter but not the former.

Even so, it’s one thing to say, “Even though I’m deeply concerned about the deficit, this weapons system is so important to our security that I think it’s worthwhile to spend half a trillion dollars on it.” It’s something else to say, “We should spend half a trillion dollars on this weapons system, and not only do I not care how high costs spiral, I don’t really care whether it’s a piece of junk.” But that is, in effect, what most everyone in Congress has said about the F-35.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was supposed to extend U.S. air superiority deep into the 21st century. The F-35 was designed to evade enemy fighters and political accountability. Its subcontracts were spread out over 1,300 companies in 45 states, ensuring that members of Congress from throughout the land would have an interest in keeping the project going. We'll spend around $400 billion to build the planes –nearly twice what the program was supposed to cost when it began. When this happens, nobody gets punished or held “accountable.” We just keep shoveling taxpayer money into Lockheed Martin’s coffers. And that doesn’t count the cost of repairing and maintaining the planes, which could push the cost past $1 trillion over time.

The problem is that the F-35 has been a disaster. Bursting into flames is just the latest mishap; it’s been so unreliable that at various points the planes have been forbidden from flying at night, in the rain, too fast and too steep. There have been problems with hardware and software.

It’s possible that all will be worked out, the planes will work and they'll be ready for combat on schedule next summer. But given the F-35’s abysmal record and the spectacular amounts of taxpayer money poured into it, you’d think deficit hawks in Congress, particularly on the Republican side, would have been holding investigations, demanding accountability and threatening hell to pay if things didn’t get back on track.

But I guess not. After all, there weren’t any F-35s at Benghazi.

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect.

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