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Save the Lightning

Why we need the F-35.

Sep 12, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 48 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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Thanks to the provisions of the Budget Control Act and the subsequent directions of President Obama’s budget director, Jack Lew, the Department of Defense is figuring out how to trim $1 trillion from its current and planned budgets. Perhaps the principal target in the sights is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program (aka the Lightning II)—a fact that neatly encapsulates the Pentagon’s severe budgetary, programmatic, operational, and strategic problems. It’s only modest hyperbole to conclude that as fares the Lightning, so fares America’s military power.

F-35 Photo

The F-35: Axeman, spare that plane.

Begin with the budgetary problem. The deficit reduction law codified the off-the-cuff defense cuts proposed by President Obama in an April speech. That speech, acknowledging that the budget crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan had eclipsed the president’s proposal from February, suggested a further defense cut of $400 billion—further, that is, than the $400-odd billion already cut in the administration’s first two years. The law also created the congressional “Super Committee” that will seek deeper deficit reductions. The legislation also carries the threat of an automatic “sequestration” of funds that would, if not altered by the committee, take another $600 billion from military budgets. Though Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has declared such cuts “unacceptable,” Pentagon planners are, as a matter of due diligence, trying to figure out what they’d have to do to meet those budget targets.

There are only three places they can go to harvest cuts of that magnitude: military personnel, operations and maintenance, and the “acquisition” accounts that reflect both weapons research and procurement. The costs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have skyrocketed over the last decade. Even if the costs of combat or “hazardous duty” pay are factored out, Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service has calculated that the annual per-troop price of the All-Volunteer Force has risen from less than $60,000 from 1972 to 2001 to almost $90,000 today. Thus, even though reductions in Army and Marine manpower are already baked into Pentagon plans, the overall personnel budget will continue to rise. Making the cuts contemplated in the Budget Control Act will likely mean further reductions of tens of thousands, but deeper troop cuts would be difficult—and extremely risky.

The “O&M” pot would appear to be a more lucrative target, and savings from these accounts are the dream of every good-government Pentagon reformer. The dream, but never the reality, as former Pentagon chief Robert Gates discovered in his quixotic 2010 quest for “efficiencies.” Cost growth in operations and maintenance is staggering: Daggett estimates that even if defense spending remained the same (after inflation), O&M would consume half the Pentagon’s budget by 2020. But the category is a catch-all: It includes elements such as the defense health service, which treats veterans, reservists, and families as well as active troops. And the effect of past O&M cuts has been felt in reduced training and unit readiness—the most deserving suffer first. The dream of big O&M savings will remain a dream. The best that can be hoped for is to constrain the rate of growth.

Much of the budget-cutting pain will thus inevitably be felt in acquisitions. Daggett forecasts that such spending, about $185 billion in 2010, will drop to less than $127 billion by 2020—and could be less than that, if the super committee either does its worst or simply does nothing. And here’s how the F-35 finds itself in the center of the bull’s-eye: It’s where the acquisition money is.

Welcome to the world of the defense programmer. The first two rounds of Obama defense cuts eviscerated a generation’s worth of weapons projects. The 2009 round, in particular, short-circuited big-ticket items like the F-22 Raptor fighter, the Zumwalt destroyer, and the Army’s Future Combat Systems. The 2010 round policed up some of the smaller fry like the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. By the reckoning of the Pentagon’s last “Selected Acquisition Report,” the annual scorecard for weapons programs, the F-35 dwarfs all other efforts. And if one simply calculates money planned but not fully programmed or spent—in other words, the most fertile fields for harvesting future savings—the F-35, with about $300 billion needed to complete the planned buy, is an order of magnitude larger than any other program on the books. Considering that it’s long been planned to replace nearly the entire fleet of aging U.S. fighters and a good number of support aircraft, the cost is no surprise and still, in fact, a bargain. Nonetheless, the temptation to plunder the F-35 budget is overwhelming.

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