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Where's My Flying Tank?

A quick refresher on Gates' "no-brainer" defense cuts—and the programs he should have axed.

| Wed Jun. 24, 2009 8:00 AM EDT

The Boondoggles Gates Should Have Axed

However, while the Obama administration proposed some sound cuts, they didn't go far enough. In a couple of cases, Gates allows a severely troubled program to bleed money for a few more years instead of ending it right away. If it makes no sense to buy 60 more F-22s, why even buy 4? The same logic applies to the DDG-1000, which Gates should have canceled instead of caving to congressional demands for a third ship. Plus, he barely shaved an inch off missile defense spending—his cuts only represent 10 percent of the total missile defense budget.

Worryingly, Gates also signed up for a couple of obvious clunkers. One is the Littoral Combat Ship, yet another Lockheed project rushed into development before testing was complete. The LCS's costs have almost doubled over first estimates.  "We'd see a real change if he said that we'll test the hell out of it and make no further decisions until we see what we got," says Winslow Wheeler of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Instead, Gates committed to 55 ships.

Perhaps the biggest clue that Gates' budget isn't all that radical is his decision to more than double the Pentagon's order of F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin, making it the DOD's biggest acquisition program. (The idea seems to have been to placate Lockheed for the cancellation of the F-22.) On the face of it, the switch to the F-35 seems like a plus—they're a comparative steal at $100 million each.

The problem is that the Pentagon has been repeatedly warned that the F-35 isn't remotely close to being ready. By November of last year, only 2 percent of the required flight-testing was completed, and under the current production schedule, the DOD will put down an estimated $57 billion for 360 planes before the flight-testing is finished. To speed things up, Lockheed devised a plan to do only 17 percent of the required trials via flight tests, and the other 83 percent on a simulator. Unfortunately, according to a Government Accountability Office investigation released earlier this year, "the ability to substitute [simulation labs] for flight testing has not yet been demonstrated." Read: The DOD plans to test the F-35 using equipment that itself hasn't been fully tested. This makes some critics wonder whether we should be signing up for 2,456 of them.

The current cost estimates for the F-35 are almost certainly understated. That's quite mind-boggling, because official projections already put the price tag for the entire program at more than $1 trillion—i.e., more or less the same size as the national deficit—once you combine the $300 billion it costs to buy the planes and the $760 billion it will take to operate and maintain them. But because the Pentagon plans to buy so many planes before the testing ensures that the technology is sound, delays and cost increases are inevitable. That Gates would double the order of F-35s under these circumstances is not an encouraging sign.

Special Report: Shock & Audit

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