Perhaps the best example of the persistence of this phenomenon is the F-35 Lightning II. Produced by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 was intended to be an "affordable" fighter-bomber (at roughly $50 million per copy), a perfect complement to the much more expensive F-22 "air superiority" Raptor. But the usual delays, cost overruns, technical glitches, and changes in requirements have driven the price tag of the F-35 up to $160 million per plane, assuming the US military persists in its plans to buy 2,400 of them. (If the Pentagon decides to buy fewer, the cost-per-plane will soar into the F-22 range.) By recent estimates the F-35 will now cost US taxpayers (you and me, that is) at least $382 billion for its development and production run. Such a sum for a single weapons system is vast enough to be hard to fathom. It would, for instance, easily fund all federal government spending on education for the next five years.
The escalating cost of the F-35 recalls the most famous of Norman Augustine's irreverent laws: "In the year 2054," he wrote back in the early 1980s, "the entire defense budget will [suffice to] purchase just one aircraft." But the deeper question is whether our military even needs the F-35, a question that's rarely asked and never seriously entertained, at least by Congress, whose philosophy on weaponry is much like King Lear's: "O, reason not the need."
But let's reason the need in purely military terms. These days, the Air Force is turning increasingly to unmanned drones. Meanwhile, plenty of perfectly good and serviceable "platforms" remain for attack and close air support missions, from F-16s and F-18s in the Air Force and Navy to Apache helicopters in the Army. And while many of our existing combat jets may be nearing the limits of airframe integrity, there's nothing stopping the US military from producing updated versions of the same. Heck, this is precisely what we're hawking to the Saudis—updated versions of the F-15, developed in the 1970s.
Because of sheer cost, it's likely we'll buy fewer F-35s than our military wants but many more than we actually need. We'll do so because Weapons ‘R' Us. Because building ultra-expensive combat jets is one of the few high-tech industries we haven't exported (due to national security and secrecy concerns), and thus one of the few industries in the US that still supports high-paying manufacturing jobs with decent employee benefits. And who can argue with that?
The Ultimate Cost of Our Merchandise of Death
Clearly, the US has grabbed the brass ring of the global arms trade. When it comes to investing in militaries and weaponry, no country can match us. We are supreme. And despite talk of modest cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next decade, it will, according to President Obama, continue to grow, which means that in weapons terms the future remains bright. After all, Pentagon spending on research and development stands at $81.4 billion, accounting for an astonishing 55 percent of all federal spending on R&D and leaving plenty of opportunity to develop our next generation of wonder weapons.
But at what cost to ourselves and the rest of the world? We've become the suppliers of weaponry to the planet's hotspots. And those weapons deliveries (and the training and support missions that go with them) tend to make those spots hotter still—as in hot lead.
As a country, we seem to have a teenager's fascination with military hardware, an addiction that's driving us to bust our own national budgetary allowance. At the same time, we sell weapons the way teenage punks sell fireworks to younger kids: for profit and with little regard for how they might be used.
Sixty years ago, it was said that what's good for General Motors is good for America. In 1955, as Bob Seger sang, we were young and strong and makin' Thunderbirds. But today we're playing a new tune with new lyrics: what's good for Lockheed Martin or Boeing or [insert major-defense-contractor-of-your-choice here] is good for America.
How far we've come since the 1950s!
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses the thrill of weaponry in pop culture and how it faded for him, click here, or download it to your iPod here. He welcomes reader comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.