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Tomgram: William Astore, A Wasteful Weapon for America's Forever Wars

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Late in his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump suggested that his future administration would put at least a trillion dollars into America's worn-out infrastructure. Such funding was obviously much needed. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers would issue an infrastructure "report card," giving an overall grade of D+ to the country's roads, railways, levees, ports, air facilities, and schools, among other things. By 2019, that Trumpian investment figure had doubled to $2 trillion (without a penny evidently going anywhere). By then, however, the very phrase "infrastructure week" -- that is, a week devoted to hammering out "a bipartisan agreement to rebuild the nation's roads, bridges, and broadband networks" -- had become a running joke in Washington. As Katie Rogers of the New York Times wrote last May, it was "less a date on the calendar than... a 'Groundhog Day'-style fever dream doomed to be repeated."

In reality, the only infrastructure project the president has put genuine energy into funding is his long promised "big, fat, beautiful wall" at the nation's southern border to keep the you-know-whos out. Mind you, two and a half years after he entered the White House, not a mile of that wall has actually been built. Just recently, though, Trump stole $3.6 billion worth of low-hanging fruit to build a few miles of that wall from 127 projects in a bloated Pentagon budget, including from a new middle school in Kentucky for the children of military personnel, an elementary school in Wiesbaden, Germany, and a dining center in Puerto Rico.

When it comes to infrastructure, in other words, this administration should be a tweet-a-second laughingstock. Oh, wait, there is one kind of infrastructure into which taxpayer dollars continue to flow at a prodigious rate, while the "building" never stops. I'm thinking about the money pouring into the military-industrial complex and the weaponry it ceaselessly produces. In fact, as retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, TomDispatch regular, and historian William Astore indicates today, if you split the trillion dollars campaign Trump promised for infrastructure and the $2 trillion President Trump plugged for the same, you get the very figure -- $1.5 trillion that the Pentagon continues to pour into Lockheed Martin's woeful "fifth generation" jet fighter, the F-35. Fortunately for that company, it's not a dam or a school or a highway or a bridge or the funds would have been cut off long ago. Tom

The Ultra-Costly, Underwhelming F-35 Fighter
Lockheed Martin Remains Top Gun in the Pentagon's Cockpit
By William J. Astore

How are you with numbers? I can deal with $1.5 million. I think I can even imagine $1.5 billion, a sum a thousand times greater. But how about a million times greater: $1.5 trillion? That happens to be the estimated cost of the Pentagon's program to build, deploy, and maintain the no-longer-so-new F-35 jet fighter over its lifetime. How can any people invest so much in a technology whose fundamental purpose is dominance through destruction -- and which reportedly doesn't even work particularly well?

The Egyptians had pyramids. The Romans had roads, aqueducts, and coliseums. The medieval Europeans had castles and cathedrals. These days, America's pyramids, aqueducts, and cathedrals are those warplanes, among other deadly weapons programs, including a $1.7 trillion one to "modernize" the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Unlike the massive projects of ancient history, which still endure and in some fashion represent the triumph of the human spirit, America's massive spending on military weaponry has been for totems of power that will prove either ephemeral or make our very existence ephemeral, while casting a long shadow over our moment, thanks to the sheer extravagance and colossal waste they embody.

As ephemeral as the F-35 stealth fighter may prove in historical terms, it's already a classic symbol of America's ever more fruitless forever wars. Like them, the F-35 program has proven staggeringly expensive, incredibly wasteful, and impossible to stop, no matter the woeful results. It has come to symbolize the too-big-to-fail, too-sacrosanct-to-reject part of America's militarized culture of technological violence.

Despite its astonishing cost and mediocre performance, the F-35 isn't simply a product of the naked greed and power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. In a strange way, it also reflects the ongoing love affair Americans have had with weaponry of every sort. It's about, you might say, the 1.5 trillion ways we worship warplanes and everything they mean to us.

Don't think of " Jet noise, the sound of freedom" as merely a bumper sticker meant for the vehicles of Air Force veterans. After all, Americans invented the airplane and we still tend to see it as the means by which this country can dominate the global high ground, projecting our version of (super) power, while inflicting death across significant parts of the planet. It's not so surprising, then, that our high-tech warplanes routinely roar in a celebratory fashion over American versions of those Roman coliseums, generating cheers and thrills among sports fans but little thought as to their cost, both in money and in lives.

Imagine, for example, what the $1.5 trillion to be spent on the F-35 over its lifetime might mean in green energy, or health care, or education, or infrastructure, or virtually any other pressing need in this country today. Given our actions, given what we've been most willing to extravagantly fund during this century, you'd think Americans truly believed a few squadrons of F-35s could blow up climate change or cure cancer or fix America's roads and bridges. Then again, Donald Trump seems to think nuking hurricanes is a good idea! So why not?

A Brief History of the F-35 Program

I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed. The "joint" meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon's previous shot at "jointness," the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)

The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force's F-16s and A-10s and the Navy's F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.

In 2014, the plane's woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS's 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America's multi-generational wars.

Five years after that 60 Minutes expose' and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversy. Harper's Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed "the Pentagon Syndrome," the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility. The F-35, he noted, "first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon's former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these 'fighters' could not have survived without protection from other planes."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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