The F-35 has single-handedly made America Number One again — at wasting money on weapons that don’t work. But wait there’s more. (Photo by Heath Canjandig/Flickr)

It is entirely fitting and proper that we scrape together $85 billion by defunding federal programs that “show no results” — such as Meals on Wheels, school lunch programs and health care for poor people — and give it to the defense department. Because unlike these loser programs, the defense department always gets results. If you have any doubts at all about this, three examples should suffice to set you straight:

I. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program has already made America proud by achieving the rank of most expensive military program in the history of the world. At one trillion dollars, this project accounts for fully one-twentieth of the U.S. national debt. But thanks to the Pentagon managers and the defense contractors who refused to pinch pennies when it comes to national defense, the F-35 is a shining example of what money can do:

  • The F-35 has 276 critical deficiencies that must be fixed before the craft can be considered ready for duty, and an average of 20 more such deficiencies are being discovered every month.
  • The software package that controls the plane’s functions in combat is not yet capable of a few things, such as tracking moving objects on the ground, detecting incoming enemy radar signals, or firing the 25mm machine guns. (Which may be a good thing — when the doors open so the machine guns can fire, the aircraft yaws to the left, making it unlikely the gun will hit what it was aimed at.)
  • The aircraft is capable of carrying and deploying two air-to-air missiles (long range, useless in a dogfight) and two bombs. This is about as much armament as a Piper Cub could carry.
  • The aircraft’s helmet, which features the world’s most advanced heads-up display and aiming controller, often displays more targets than exist and often can’t hit what the pilot is aiming at.     
  • Despite all this and more, the Air Force declared the aircraft ready for deployment last year. The Marines activated a squadron of them and sent them to Japan, where they are trying grimly to get them airborne once in a while. One month later the Air Force grounded all its F-35s pending further developments.

II. The USS Zumwalt is to the sea what the F-35 is to the air — a fabulously expensive tribute to military intelligence. The promise was that this super-sized, hard-to-detect destroyer with a tiny crew would give the United States dominance of the world’s oceans at a bargain price. So far we have learned:

  • Forget the bargain price. Initial estimates were that the ships would cost $1.34 billion each and we would build 32 of them. The first one cost $7 billion (about what we spent for our last aircraft carrier) and we can only afford three of them.
  • Of the eleven critical technologies required to make this vessel work, only three are “mature.”
  • The promise that this “smart ship” would require a crew of only 95, compared with the usual 500 or so, was never studied. Or realized. The present vessel has 147 hands on deck, and everyone is praying nothing goes wrong with the ship and that it never has to do any fighting.
  • The ship’s Advanced Gun System delivers 24 pounds of explosive in a 155mm shell to a target 60-80 miles away (NOT another ship, it can’t do that) for $800,000 per round. It is so expensive that practice is unthinkable, and combat may be unaffordable. The round it replaced, which delivered the same 24 pounds of explosive with slightly less range and accuracy, costs $700.
  • Launched last October in Maine, the ship sprang a leak trying to get to nearby Norfolk, Virginia. And, heading for its new home port in California, the ship lost power — both of its propeller-drive shafts seized up entirely — in the Panama Canal and had to be towed to safety.

III. Littoral Combat Ships — fast, shallow-draft vessels for close-to-shore fighting — are a dream at which the Navy has been throwing money for more than a decade. Half a billion dollars later. one prototype vessel, launched in 2006, rides at anchor, unused and unusable. [“Lesson on How Not to Build a Navy Ship,” The New York Times.]

Obviously, the solution to all these problems is to throw more money at them. Which, apparently, is what we are going to do.

[POST SCRIPT — If you want a complete, factual briefing on how the Pentagon screws these things up so magnificently, watch the movie The Pentagon Wars, starring Kelsey Grammer. Funny as hell, until you realize it’s not a comedy. Written by James Burton, who lived it, and whom I got to know in his later life as a supervisor in Loudoun County, Virginia.]

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  1. Psyborg57 says:

    Many of the F Troop-35’s deficiencies are inherent to the design of the aircraft and can not be fixed. This is the result of designing an aircraft to do everything. Of course, it can not do any of those things well.

    And I highly recommend the movie.

  2. Tom says:

    Thanks for highlighting the NUMBER ONE money waster of the federal government, Mr. Lewis. Not only do we (the people) NOT get “results,” all the “toys” they (the military) get only make us more enemies (so they need MORE)! See how that circular, “positive-feedback” thingie works?!

    Between the military-industrial hydra and Homeland (in)Security, we’re gettin’ less and less “bang” for our collective “buck,” while they continue to make every aspect of our lives fear-laden, intrusive, and oppressive. For a little more on just how bad the military alone is, this article came out yesterday: [from a Russia Insider article, by Paul Kaiser]

    $10 trillion unaccounted for since 1996: The Pentagon heist that has never been audited

    Although it’s required to by law, the DoD has never had an audit, something every American person, every company and every other government agency is subject to. The result is an astounding $10tn in taxpayer money that has gone unaccounted for since 1996.

    “Over the last 20 years, the Pentagon has broken every promise to Congress about when an audit would be completed,” the director of the Audit the Pentagon coalition, Rafael DeGennaro, told the Guardian. “Meanwhile, Congress has more than doubled the Pentagon’s budget.”

    Legislation in the early 1990s demanded that all government agencies had annual audits, but the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.

    In the meantime, the GAO and Office of the Inspector General (IG) have published an endless stream of reports documenting financial mismanagement: $500m in aid to Yemen lost here, $5.8bn in supplies lost there, $8,000 spent on helicopter gears that really cost $500.
    Of course, we certainly can’t blame the Trump administration for the Pentagon’s lack of fiscal responsibility. Previous administrations have pointed it out — but unforeseen circumstances seem to block all attempts at reform.

    Let’s not forget that Donald Rumsfeld said that “the adversary is [close] to home. It is the Pentagon bureaucracy,” and announced that the Defense Department was unable to track $2.3 trillion in transactions. [more]

    All this waste will come back to haunt us, i’m afraid, as our economy circles the drain, the inherent complexity disintegrates the system, and our environment quietly degrades until it will no longer support life.

    Enjoy your days.

  3. Brent says:

    I know $58 million to $68 million is minuscule compared to the figures in your article, Tom, but somehow this grates anyway. And the depth of irony in this situation is endless, of course.

  4. Denis Frith says:

    One thing missing from this discussion is that all these military items are made of irreplaceable materials, naturally age and mostly use up a portion of the remaining liquid fuels. But, of course, the military chiefs can, like government, ignore that reality. This is a global problem, although the US, as usual, is in the lead.

  5. btraven says:

    I’m new at this, so maybe this is a stupid question: Does not all this money eventually end up in the civilian economy–buying cars and appliances and houses and suchlike civilian accouterments? Is this not good for the economy? Could not Pentagon incompetence and corruption be considered a variety of civilian full-employment program? Is there not “…money to be made, supplying the Army with the tools of the trade”? It’s not wasted money, gents, it’s alternative spending. Is your argument that Pentagon spending should be MORE lethally efficient?

    • Tom Lewis says:

      I think the best answer to your question was given a half century ago by President and General Dwight Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

      • btraven says:

        While my comments were not exactly A Modest Proposal, they were meant in the same spirit–A Modest Inquiry, perhaps. Although you prefaced your remarks as the best answer, you did NOT, in fact, answer my original question: Does not all the money [spent on wasteful and ineffective military programs] eventually end up in the civilian economy? And: Is this not good for the economy? While I admire Eisenhower as the rare honorable Republican, those comments are irrelevant now. Back then, 1953, Federal spending was constrained by revenue. That is no longer the case. Nowadays, in this era of monetary sovereignty, no less an authority than the despicable Alan Greenspan admits that the US can always pay any bill denominated in US dollars, it can never become insolvent. On top of that, Ike posits binary choices in this speech, as if the only choice is a half-million bushels of wheat OR a single fighter plane and he compares apples to pomegranates in that it’s Federal spending that buys bombers and warships while it is mostly state, local and private spending that builds schools and roads, homes and hospitals–entities whose spending IS constrained by revenue. The fact is that we CAN have the Zumwalt and the F-35 AND meals-on-wheels and school lunch programs.

    • Pamela says:

      All of this money spent on non flying F 35s and beached navy ships has not seemed to help the economy too much. I know too many people who are under employed after being laid off from military contractors. The reasons for this are numerous (do some research). It basically boils down to this..don’t expect infinite growth on a finite planet and greed is bad.

  6. James Eberle says:

    What we observe here is the classic diminishing returns of technology, along with the fact that increasing complexity is directly proportional to vulnerability.

  7. Mike Kay says:

    Military spending far eclipses the obvious cases of graft and incompetence. There is an entire black budget that is absolutely above any oversight. This not only means how much is spent, but the source for this money as well. If you want a hint where it comes from, read the work of Eduardo Saviano.
    Rest assured that Mr L. did indeed answer the question regarding the economic contribution of military spending…it is in the negative. Simply put, the drain of military spending far outweighs any contribution to economic health.
    This can be illustrated with the construction of a missile. Materials, labor, energy all go into construction, and less than nothing comes out. Our missile must be transported, stored, maintained, and if fired, is completely lost. Even if it is never fired, it will face decomission, and the components must then be disposed of, which means more cost, some of which such as toxicity have never been tallied. Multiply this by thousands of times, and apply the same analysis to all aspects of weapons manufacturing, then it will become clear that a few thousand cars, flat screen tv’s, and the like cannot possibly counterbalance, much less endorse the kind of spending in question here. Of course such analysis doesn’t involve research and development, testing and refining of weapons systems, such as microwaves, and costs associated with training, deployment and logistics to name a few, which ensures that negative return stays firmly in the loss category.