The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Mortgaging The Pentagon

Say you really want a sports car, a vacation, a big new house, or some other fancy thing you can’t really afford. You know that if you buy it, you’ll bust your budget. It would mean a ramen noodle diet and a threadbare closet from now to eternity for you and your family.

So maybe you daydream a little. Or hope to win the lottery. What you don’t do — if you’re responsible — is mortgage everything you own to acquire that one thing you want.

Well, that’s not how things work for the Pentagon.

In its budget request for the next fiscal year, the Pentagon has made clear that it’s ready to break the bank for the fancy thing it really wants — the F-35 joint strike fighter program.

This platinum-plated spork of an aircraft is intended to replace the F-16, F-15, F/A-18, and A-10 jets now in use by the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps.

But it’s hard for anyone to argue with a straight face that the Pentagon can afford to spend $1.5 trillion on a single aircraft program, as the Congressional Budget Office predicts this obsession will eventually cost.

It’s hard for most of us to even visualize $1.5 trillion. A trillion is a thousand billions or a million millions. But let’s put just the Pentagon’s latest procurement request for the F-35 into perspective.

The U.S. military wants to buy 57 F-35s in fiscal year 2016. That’s 19 more than the 38 they got in the previous year’s bill.

If you count just the procurement of those airframes and spare parts alone, you’re looking at $9 billion. The total Pentagon request for procurement is $108 billion.

So that means fully 8.5 percent of all Pentagon spending to buy systems from A to Z — from Apache helicopters to Zumwalt destroyers — is devoted to a single aircraft program. It’s staggering.

There are more ways to slice the budgetary salami. If you look at overall aircraft procurement and research and development costs, you’ll see that 35 percent — more than a third of the total — is dedicated to the F-35’s mammoth tab.

If you break it down by service, you’ll find that over a quarter of the Navy’s “combat aircraft” account for 2016 goes to the F-35. And for the Air Force, it’s 100 percent. Yes, every dime.

This much is clear: The Pentagon — particularly the Air Force — is mortgaging the future of not just other aircraft programs, but all Pentagon procurement, to buy this exorbitant plane.

I sure hope it works, because that’s one pricey, lonely egg in that basket.

Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense (

Distributed by

Photo: createordie via Flickr

When $1.5 Trillion Could Be Too Low, The Price Tag Is Too High

It’s not yet clear exactly how much the Pentagon’s fancy new F-35 combat jet will cost or when any of these stealth fighters will become operational. But the F-35 already shows great promise in the tough competition to become the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken.

Because of the jet’s projected eye-popping price tag of up to $344.8 million each, we at Taxpayers for Common Sense have always kept an eye on the F-35. And we were appalled by a request from the Pentagon in early September to shift funds from the so-called Overseas Contingency Operations fund to accelerate the purchase of eight of these planes.

The contingency fund supplements the official military budget to cover direct warfighting costs. But since the F-35s aren’t operational yet, there’s no way for them to do any warfighting. Fortunately, the House Appropriations Committee nixed that particular budgetary sleight of hand.

Days later, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighed in on the F-35, casting yet more doubt on its affordability. Following years of developing this fighter jet, the Pentagon “has not fully addressed several key risks to long-term affordability and operational readiness,” the GAO observed.

In other words, between the considerable resources of the Pentagon and GAO, the U.S. government still can’t definitively say what the plane will cost or when it will fly in combat.

The GAO last estimated the entire F-35 program’s cost in March 2012. At that time, the estimate for the cost of developing and buying the plane and for improving military airfields where they will be based was $395.7 billion.

And it’s probably safe to bet that number has gone up in the last two and a half years. It’s not like Pentagon cost estimates ever go down. Besides, this estimate doesn’t include the cost of maintaining F-35s, and therefore leaves out a lot of what the government deems to be “sustainment ” or “lifecycle” costs.

The new GAO report points to two current estimates of these long-term expenditures. One comes from the F-35 Joint Program Office. It’s — get ready — a mere $916 billion. The other estimate hails from the Pentagon’s office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and clocks in on the other side of the trillion-dollar mark at $1.02 trillion.

Here’s the bottom line: Developing, buying, basing, and maintaining the F-35 is currently estimated to cost close to one and a half trillion dollars.

That does sound like a lot of money, right? But the GAO says both estimates could actually be too low and that it could cost more than a trillion dollars just to keep this airplane in the air.

I’d like to put that number in perspective: Spending $1.5 trillion to purchase the jets and keep them combat-ready for many years is several hundred billion dollars more than the entire federal discretionary budget for one year. It’s also triple the Pentagon’s entire annual budget.

Congress was a little late in asking the GAO to assess the real costs of keeping the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter flying. But it’s still not too late to curtail this massive program.

The Pentagon has other options, as my organization explains in our own report. I hope Congress keeps a microscope on this massive weapon system. A trillion and a half dollars is too much to squander like this.

Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Cross-posted from Other Words.

Photo: Mark Jones Jr. via Flickr

Want more fiscal news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Auditioning For The Electorate

Around Washington you can tell football season is upon us because Congress is lining up to punt its work until after the elections.

Lawmakers have plenty to do over the next month, but little will — and even less incentive — to do it. Congress is grappling with the still-stumbling economy, an immigration crisis, the brewing conflict along the Russia-Ukraine border, Islamic State insurgents in Iraq and Syria, and the growing number of U.S. companies averting taxes via inversions — a trick that lets them legally pretend to be based in other countries.

All of these issues, just like funding government, require leadership. But what we will get in the run up to the election is little more than pandering to the base.

Members of both major political parties will talk past the crisis of immigrant children. After telling each other it’s their fault, Democrats and Republicans alike are advocating “solutions” to the Islamic State’s brutality. These all amount to spending money to deal with the threat, without any real plan for success or what’s next.

And as more and more big companies declare that they’re contemplating a shift of their headquarters overseas after purchasing foreign operations to cut their tax bills, Congress doesn’t seem exorcised enough to do anything about it.

Where is Congress? Asleep at the switch? More like with a finger in the wind.

No lawmaker wants to do anything that might give the other side any fodder when several House seats look like they could go either way. Even more important, it looks like either party could wind up with majority control over the Senate. So there may be a few votes and speeches for the base, but then lawmakers will quickly retreat to their districts to try to hold on to their jobs.

And so Congress fiddles while the spending house burns.

Our lawmakers have one constitutionally mandated job each year: pass the spending bills that keep government running. There are a dozen spending bills and 12 “work” days scheduled in September, but it’s unlikely that even one of them will be enacted.

So far this year, the House has passed seven spending bills and the Senate a grand total of zero. That makes the adoption of a continuing resolution assured. A continuing resolution would allow spending at this year’s levels in the new fiscal year, probably at least until December.

There’s no excuse for this. Lawmakers have known all year what the top line discretionary spending levels for fiscal year 2015 would be.

Continuing resolutions aren’t victimless. They tie the hands of agencies that don’t know what their budgets will be next year, whether they can upgrade aging computers, travel, or hire new staff. This blind budgeting approach takes away the opportunity to cut programs that are unnecessary, and precludes directing tax dollars to programs that work particularly well or save money.

And continuing resolutions guarantee inefficiency and waste. For lawmakers who like to bash government, it’s kind of perfect. Congress doesn’t do its job, which makes it hard for the agencies to do theirs, and lawmakers get to bash them for being wasteful and inefficient.

Here’s a novel thought for Congress. Why don’t you roll up your sleeves and do the job that you got elected to do? Don’t fritter away the time. In fact, you might as well see this as your audition to the electorate in November.

Ryan Alexander is president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Cross-posted from Other Words.

Photo: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!