By JULIAN YERGER – There’s one department of Federal government whose budget is more than all other departments and agencies put together.
It’s the Department of Defense, assigned the nearly impossible task of keeping America safe from all possible foreign threats. In 2015, the US spent 600 billion dollars on its military; more than any other country and more than the next eight countries combined.
Despite the massive budget, there are those who feel that the government may not be doing enough to support the military. Freshman Mohannad Al Maita thinks that, “Military spending was deprioritized during the terms of Clinton and Obama, and it has caused the US military fall behind [rivals] such as China.”
The main problem isn’t how much is spent, the problem is how it’s spent.
Defense spending is misguided because of lobbying from the Military Industrial Complex and millions of dollars in campaign donations. These companies have shaped America’s foreign policy outlook and placed it on the bleeding edge of technological development. The F-35 fighter program is a classic example of the issues this arrangement creates.
In October of 2001, defense company Lockheed Martin won a contract to develop its X-35 prototype into America’s next generation of fighter aircraft. The plan to develop it into three separate variants, have it ready within five years, and make it cheaper and more capable than its predecessor was ambitious at best. Years behind schedule and billions over budget, the first F-35s are finally being delivered.
The F-35 fighter program was created to solve the problem of rapidly rising costs, yet it exemplifies everything wrong with the US military’s approach to advanced weapons and procurement systems. Few companies bidding on lucrative contracts, close cooperation among companies that are supposedly competitors, and shrewd political maneuvering have created a project that is simply too big to kill.
Although the project looks cheaper than the F-22 on paper, the program’s costs are skyrocketing because Lockheed used a production method that emphasized speed over cost. They started mass producing fighters before testing had finished, so when changes inevitably had to be made, there were hundreds of aircraft to fix. It was a process Lockheed promised would speed production, but only caused more cost overruns and delays.
Aircraft are finally being delivered, but these development problems were not fully fixed. One advanced feature of the F-35 is the pilot’s individually formed $800,000 virtual reality helmet that allows them to see through the aircraft using outside sensors. When it works, the system is incredibly useful. When it doesn’t, the pilot is practically blind.
Lockheed is delivering aircraft with defective helmet systems and other issues. These aircraft will inevitably need to be repaired, or “upgraded,” and this will create more business in the future.
Lockheed Martin was created in a 1995 merger between two well-established aerospace companies. As an experienced player in the system, it knew the standard political techniques.
One technique is called “peanut buttering.” Just as peanut butter is spread around, by spreading out the work on a major project, everyone stands to gain something from its development. Even though Lockheed Martin won the contract, they reached out to 1,250 separate suppliers in 45 states to build the aircraft. This significantly raises costs but also creates more support. If work is carried out in 45 states, 90 senators will support it because it creates jobs in their home state.
A far more blunt alternative is to simply send money to lawmakers responsible for deciding whether to fund the program. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2014 Lockheed donated $4.1 million to influential lawmakers.
Many politicians have spoken out against the program, including Senator John McCain and President Donald Trump, who criticized the “tremendous cost and cost overruns.” Trump has promised to renegotiate the program to lower costs and increase jobs, but only congress holds the authority to fund budgets and Lockheed has no reason to make significant concessions.
Some students doubted Trump’s motives for the statement, such as freshman Hannah Wick. “We’re overanalyzing the situation. We still spend more than any other country on defense and Trump wants to increase spending more, but that’s just a scare tactic.”
The F-35 fighter is less stealthy and a worse visual-range dogfighter than its predecessor, and many of its advantages are simply due to more advanced computers, which any new design would benefit from. The basic design is a mediocre compromise that was not specialized for dogfighting like its predecessor and is far too expensive to fully replace ground attack aircraft.
Despite all its issues, the F-35 is only a symptom, not the disease. The situation America finds itself in today has been forming since the end of World War II. The F-35 program has shown the disaster that can be created when defense contractors are given too much power.
In his 1961 farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower spelled out exactly the problem we would be in, “We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions… We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications… We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”
According to the US General Services Administration, in 2015 the top five defense contractors received $78 billion in contracts. In the same year, according to OpenSecrets.org, these contractors spent $58 million on lobbying.
The true problem here is the effect campaign funding can have on politics, and how the American public needs to start watching where defense money goes. The politicians responsible for the F-35 debacle should face consequences, and limitations need to be placed on campaign funding from defense companies.
The defense budget is a politically controversial issue, but maximum value for money should be something everyone can support.
Photo: Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan is the Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office in Arlington, Va. The F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office is the Department of Defense’s agency responsible for developing and acquiring the F-35A/B/C, the next-generation strike aircraft weapon system for the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and many allied nations.