Saturday, July 30, 2022

Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Part II

By Adm. Husband Kimmel, USN (Ret.)
Defense Correspondent

This summer audiences have thrilled to the spectacle of the amazingly well-preserved Tom Cruise zooming around the sky in Top Gun II.  If you paid $18.95 for your ticket, $9.95 for a vat of popcorn, and $6.95 for a bladder-busting barrel of soda, you may think you paid richly for the experience of watching fighter planes zoom around.

That was the price you paid for fiction.  In reality, for the spectacle of the F-35 fighter not zooming around, you're on the hook for $1,270,000,000,000, according to the General Accounting Office, the green-eyeshade branch of Congress:


That's more than $1.2 trillion.  Seems like a lot of money to us.  The cliché is that a stack of $1 bills in that amount would reach beyond the Moon, although your stack may vary.

We'll talk about what else $1.2 trillion could represent later.  But first let's find out what that humongous pile is getting us:

WASHINGTON, July 29 (Reuters) - Concerns over defects in the explosive cartridges in pilot ejection systems aboard three U.S. military aircraft, including the F-35, forced a temporary halt to some U.S. operations in order to perform checks, the Air Force said on Friday.

"Our primary concern is the safety of our Airmen and it is imperative that they have confidence in our equipment," Major General Craig Wills, 19th Air Force Commander, said in a statement.

"This is a temporary stand-down, not a fleet-wide grounding," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a statement about concern over "a component used in the pilot ejection system of several aircraft."

F-35 development has suffered a few setbacks

So we have a fighter plane that can't fly.  Seems like a problem to us, despite the Pentagon double-talk.

It's not as if before this week it had been blue skies for the plane, according to the GAO:

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program began development in 2001 and remains DOD's most expensive weapon system program. Currently, the program is more than 8 years delayed and $165 billion over original cost expectations.

Eight years? Good thing we haven't had to deploy Top, Middle, or Bottom Gun since 2013. Otherwise, what would they fly, other than the F-22 and F-18 fighter jets currently used by our armed forces?

As a result, the plane is still not ready for full deployment (even before the discovery of the non-ejection seats).  One problem was that the video game used to train pilots was two years late:

In March 2021, we found that F-35 simulator delays continue to prevent DOD from completing initial operational testing and making a decision to move to full-rate production.

Maybe they could train the pilots on Flight Simulator?

You might think that if they can just fix the seats and put out the simulator, the plane will be cleared for take-off.

If you put $25 on that at 40-1 against, you lost:

According to program officials, the F-35 program had 864 open deficiencies as of June 2021, which is slightly lower than the 872 we reported in March 2021

Well, let's do some math. At the rate of of fixing three deficiencies a month, everything should be right as rain in only 288 months, or 2046.

Why not just pull the plug on the whole mess and rely on the 600 planes that have already been duct-taped together?  We don't know if the F-35 will ever make a difference on a battlefield (and neither does anyone else) but there's one place it makes a huge impact: the 50 United States, where the program, according to its lead contractor, Lockheed, represents 298,000 job and $65 billion of annual spending.

Lockheed is so proud of this gravy train that it provides a handy map to let every Senator and Representative know how many jobs are generated by the unflyable plane.  Here's an example, taken at random:




What are the chances that a Senator or Representative from Texas would pull the plug on 75,000 jobs and $12 billion of economic impact, whatever that is?

Now we don't know if stopping production at 600 would have any detrimental effect on national security.  For $1.27 trillion, you can get a lot of brass-hats and PR geniuses to conjure scenarios in which only the F-35 can protect us from swarms of fighters piloted by immigrants flying over the Rio Grande, or something.

Our point is tiny and simple: our resources are not inexhaustible.  If we spend $1.27 trillion on a plane that can't fly with 864 known deficiencies, we don't have $1.27 trillion to spend on defending ourselves from threats less theoretical than aerial battles over Dubuque against the Chinese Air Force.

For example, we have lost over one million lives in the past two years from pandemic disease.  Imagine if even a tiny portion of that F-35 jack was reprogrammed into preparing us for future pandemics, including stockpiling vaccines, treatments, and protective equipment, improving ventilation in schools and other public buildings, and implementing nationwide testing and tracing.

Anyone see a national security issue here?

Or we could use the money to defend ourselves against the imminent prospect of catastrophic climate change that in this century inundated New York and now threatens other low-lying cities like Miami and Boston with ruin.  You can buy a lot of renewable energy sources for $1.27 trillion, and maybe even have a little left over to harden our urban coastlines, although, to be fair, if Miami slipped beneath the waves, we wouldn't be all that heartbroken. 

Or we hear a lot about the plague of homelessness, by which rich people mean  the agony of having to look at homeless people camping out on city streets.  We know that lack of shelter is lethal.  What if we took money from the F-35 program and put it into the H-35,000 program, to build 35,000 units of affordable housing for the homeless?  We bet we could spread the loot around as well as Lockheed and even build nice maps showing how many jobs were thereby created in Texas or wherever.

Of course that can't happen because of the other reason we can't have nice things: racism, but that's been covered well elsewhere, including, mirabile dictu, in the New York Times Opinion pages.

The idea that spending on war and weapons can crowd out good things is hardly new.  Fifty years ago it was characterized as “guns v. butter,”  a pejorative phrase positing an obviously unthinkable tradeoff between national security (guns) and fripperies like butter.

After 50 years punctuated by several gruesome needless wars of choice, pandemic, and the catastrophe of climate change caused by uncontrolled global warming, now we know that in deciding how to spend $1.27 trillion, the choice is between national security (if not survival), on the one hand, and, on the other, loud props for the next Tom Cruise summer spectacular.

Maybe it's time to eject the F-35 and other ridiculously expensive weapons (why are we building new aircraft carriers by the way?  are we headed back to Guadalcanal?).  If only the eject button worked.

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