The U.S. Department of Defense has spent tens of billions of dollars over the last 25 years on weapons systems that simply have failed to deliver as planned. These systems have wound up way over budget and have been either delivered exceptionally late or canceled outright after the DoD spent billions of dollars on them. Many of the programs that survive to completion, after long delays and cost overruns, have not delivered the capabilities initially desired and promised.
Much can be, and has been, said and written about this very issue. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — the committee in Congress responsible for DoD oversight — I want to drive home three irrefutable points.
First, we the American taxpayers are not getting what we have paid for. Second, regardless of how large or small one thinks the defense budget should be, or how one views the role of the U.S. military in the world, spending large amounts of money and not getting what you paid for is unacceptable. Third, all of us involved in the process of buying and selling these weapon systems need to do a much better job of addressing this yearslong challenge.
I recently criticized the F-35 program as being one of the most egregious examples of unfulfilled promises and wasteful spending. The delivery of the full capability of the platform is years late, and the program is hundreds of billions of dollars over its initial budget. Even more concerning, the plane is not yet performing as required in terms of either cost or capabilities. The cost to operate an F-35A is approximately $38,000 per flight hour and is not forecast to achieve the rate of $25,000 an hour as currently promised.
Plus, the complexity of basic repairs and maintenance on the plane are proving to be bigger, costlier, and more frequently needed than expected, meaning that the F-35s we do have are not available for training or operational missions as often as was promised. The engine is a big part of this problem, so much so that if the technical challenges are not fixed or we don’t find a way to dramatically increase our repair capacity, 43 percent of the global F-35 fleet will not have serviceable engines by 2030.
Moreover, the aircraft has a fully mission-capable rate of roughly 40 percent, meaning the majority of aircraft that are available for training or missions cannot perform all of their assigned mission sets.
Predictably, defenders of the F-35 program have risen up, like a mama bear protecting her cubs, to make sure my concerns don’t lead to any reductions in spending on the plane. In their frantic response, two arguments have gained traction; both are problematic, not just in the case of the F-35 but also the broader phenomenon of overspending on platforms that underdeliver.
First, some have argued that I am using my criticisms of the F-35 as a stalking horse for those who want to cut the defense budget. The problem with that argument: I have repeatedly voiced my concerns about slashing the DoD budget wholesale at some predetermined percent, as has been proposed, and my voting record shows that. I do, however, believe just spending a bunch of money in the name of “defense” does not automatically make us stronger militarily. When a major, multibillion-dollar program is canceled, it is like lighting our money on fire — and our military and service members suffer the consequences. Similarly, we do not get a better, stronger military by spending money on programs that do not deliver their promised capabilities. Regardless of how much one thinks we should spend on the defense budget, we should all agree on this point: We have to stop wasting money by overpaying for underperforming products. There must be real consequences and accountability for failures that result from lack of diligence.
Second, some argue that people like me, who are willing to criticize the F-35, are simply ignorant about the classified capabilities of the program. It’s a clever argument. How can it be refuted publicly? We can’t talk about these details because they’re classified.
I can tell you three things about this argument. First, I know the capabilities being referenced; I have received the classified briefing on many occasions. Second, the F-35 has yet to actually deliver many promised capabilities. The hope continues to be that one day it will, but military men and women themselves often remind us that “hope is not a strategy.” Third, as threat technologies rapidly change and emerge, it is far from clear if these hoped-for F-35 capabilities — 10 or more years late — will be as relevant to our national security needs as they were when the program began nearly 20 years ago.
But again, the big point here is that we are not getting what we paid for out of the F-35, and the program is far from an outlier in this regard. The littoral combat ship, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the DDG-1000, Future Combat Systems and many more have cost us huge sums of money and failed to deliver. This trend cannot continue. Members of Congress, the Pentagon and defense contractors all bear some responsibility for this challenge, and we all must make changes to address it. I know it is complicated. We are not just making simplistic widgets here. But I also know we can and must do better.
Competition is a key component of improving the situation. Once a major contractor gets a big contract, it becomes too big to fail and can put taxpayers in a bad position. Competition is not always possible on every aspect of these systems. We could not possibly afford to build two different F-35s. But we could compete the maintenance, for example. And we absolutely could have made sure we had a second engine supplier for the F-35.
Some of us fought tooth and nail to keep funding the second engine over a decade ago. Ironically, many so-called good-government groups — in a misguided desire to stop what defense spending they could, and not understanding the value of competition — allied with the contractors for the first engine and killed the second one. Now the current engine maker has us in a box as well. Their engine is underperforming in the durability of a key component, resulting in a significant backlog of complex repairs. But what options do we currently have to incentivize better performance from a single-source supplier?
The department is always in pursuit of capabilities for the future — systems and technologies that simply do not exist yet — to maintain our advantage. It is easy, therefore, for industry to make lofty and unattainable promises on cost and schedule while disdaining competition for contracts, placing the DoD, lawmakers and the American taxpayer in an untenable situation.
We can and must make better choices to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.