The Smart Money: When it's time to pull the plug

Posted Monday, August 4, 2014 in Analysis

The Smart Money: When it's time to pull the plug

by Gina Hamilton

When the austerians in Congress say that we have to tighten our belts, they’re talking about things that affect folks like you and me, seniors and the disabled, and really poor people. They want to cut funding to things like the Department of Education’s Pell Grant program and support for special education, Social Security and Medicare, food stamps, and Medicaid.

They don’t usually want to cut military spending, even military spending for a program that doesn’t work, has massive cost overruns, missed deadlines, has design flaws that render it useless worldwide, has been involved in dangerous accidents, and has caused the operators of the equipment to become ill and even lose consciousness.

It makes one wonder why, after all this time, the F-35 fighter is still getting taxpayer money. The F-35 is the most expensive military weapons program in history, after being touted as a “cheap” replacement for a number of different fighter jets being flown today.

The Pentagon would probably like a reassessment of the program, if it were being honest. But Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor on the project, did something to protect itself from any kind of sober “light of day” examination of the F-35. It hired 1,400 subcontracting companies in 46 states to work on pieces of the program. That’s a lot of congressional districts, and no sane Congressperson would act to terminate the program. There could be hundreds of thousands of people working on this plane, but we’re not really sure, because the way the contracts are organized, we can’t know.

In the meantime, we’re at $1.5 trillion ... and counting.

The F-35 was conceived to be a replacement for a number of planes in the arsenals of all the branches of the military. The Marines wanted it to be able to replace the disastrous Harrier jet, which takes off vertically but uses enormous energy to do so. The other branches wanted a plane that was stealthy and could replace jet fighters already considered too out of date. Despite the generally good reputation of the F-22 Raptor, also by Lockheed Martin, in stealth, speed, agility and precision, cost overruns and a stiff price tag caused it to cease production in 2011.

Meanwhile, Lockheed was given the contract to build the F-35, which would replace the F-16 and F-18 Hornets, A-10 (Warthog), and AV-8B (Harrier) tactical fighter aircraft.

Since day one, the program had significant cost overruns that have come under fire by Congress and the General Accounting Office. The expected cost per plane had been $89 million; by 2012, it had risen to $304 million, and that was supposed to include all research and development.

In 2011, the Pentagon insisted that Lockheed help cover the costs of applying fixes found during testing to the aircraft that had already been produced, and Lockheed objected, finally agreeing to a cost sharing agreement in late December. Additional problems were found, and the cost of fixing them is expected to reach $1.7 billion.

Meanwhile, countries that had been planning to buy the planes were dropping out of the program because of the significant costs and a series of seemingly neverending problems.

Among them are significant software problems. The various complex systems on the aircraft can’t talk to one another and can’t communicate with ground control. The hovering part of the system hasn’t been fully worked out yet. The logistics system doesn’t meet “basic requirements,” and the overreliance on electronics makes it a target for enemy fire and even lightning. Which is ironic, since its formal name is the F-35 Lightning II.

The plane was supposed to appear at an international air show last month. It didn’t show up because its Pratt and Whitney engine failed; a fire broke out as the pilot was getting ready for takeoff. All 97 planes were grounded. They are flying again, but restricted to slower speeds and the engines have to be reinspected every three hours. It’ll never make it across the pond to any international air shows.

So, essentially, what we have now are 97 planes that have cost double what they should have cost, have inadequate logistics, are natural targets for enemy fire, can’t fly in bad weather, can’t fly more than three hours, and various parts of the plane can’t communicate with one another or anyone on the ground. It’s got problems with excessive vibration, a malfunctioning helmet technical display that makes its pilots ill, a flawed tail hookthat won’t catch the arresting gear wire on an aircraft carrier, and lights that don’t meet FAA requirements.

Other analysts say the plane is too light to be a bomber, is not maneuverable enough for air “dog fights”, and is too fast and vulnerable to support troops on the ground.

So what are the austerians waiting for? Isn’t this a perfect choice for a red pencil?

One has to wonder. But in approving the 2015 defense bill, the House Appropriations Committee made it clear that there was no push to restrain or reconsider spending for a military program, even one as tragically flawed as this one is. Instead, the GOP-led House voted to cut food stamps to poor families and to raise interest rates on college loans.

Because that makes so much more sense.

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