The United States spends more on its military than any other country in the world. In fact, it spends more than China, Russia, the U.K., Japan, France and Saudi Arabia combined.
But that doesn’t necessarily translate to “smart” spending. Take the F-35, a $199-million, Lockheed Martin-designed jet that the Pentagon initially commissioned in 2001. It’s a $400 billion project that’s nearly seven years behind schedule and $163 billion over budget.
And here’s the kicker: According to a 41-page Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday, the F-35, which has yet to fly a single official mission, will stay grounded for at least another 13 months because of “problems completing software testing.”
According to the report:
Since the F-35 program restructuring was completed in March 2012, acquisition cost and schedule estimates have remained relatively stable, and the program has made progress in key areas. However, persistent software problems have slowed progress in mission systems flight testing, which is critical to delivering the warfighting capabilities expected by the military services. These persistent delays put the program’s development cost and schedule at risk. [emphasis added]
The report also concludes that the Pentagon will be forced to “increase funds steeply” over the next five years to maintain the fleet of 2,400 jets. The GAO says the F-35 will cost about $13 billion per year through 2037.
“Annual funding of this magnitude clearly poses long-term affordability risks given the current fiscal environment,” Mike Sullivan, the study’s author, notes on the report’s first page.
The F-35—its full name is the F-35 Lightning II—was initially imagined as a one-size-fits-all plane that would replace all existing fighter jets in the U.S. military. It’s a stealthy warplane that’s capable of ground attacks, reconnaissance and pretty much anything in between. It’s also capable of short takeoffs and nearly vertical landings—like a helicopter—so the jets could be deployed both from land and from aircraft carriers.
But what really makes the plane so unique, so expensive and at this point, so delayed, is the software onboard.
“The biggest big deal is the information this airplane gathers and processes and gives to me as the pilot,” Lt. Colonel David Berke in the Marines told 60 Minutes in February 2014, referring to the plane’s hyperalert radar. ”It’s very difficult to overstate how significant of an advancement this airplane is over anything that’s flying right now.”
That may indeed be the case. But the reality is that the program has encountered so many cost overruns, malfunctions and delays that the Pentagon reportedly considered canceling the program in August 2013, as part of a “worst-case scenario” plan. According to a report from Reuters, the government said that scaling back on the F-35 would be “one way to deal with deep budget cuts.”
For its part, Lockheed Martin maintains that the F-35 is destined to “dominate the skies” with its supersonic speed and extreme agility. The company even received a bit of good news yesterday—South Korea agreed to purchase 40 of the jets once they’re ready. It’s just a question of when—and at what cost—the high-tech jets will finally be fit for combat.