A Ferrari is surely a wonderful sports car, but let’s be honest: Most of us couldn’t afford the day-to-day maintenance, let alone the sticker price, and these beautiful creatures are hard to drive on America’s pothole-plagued streets, and a massive pain in the butt to repair when they break down. So you can imagine the raised eyebrows earlier this year when a top U.S. Air Force general compared the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jet — decades and hundreds of billions of dollars into a lifetime that will cost taxpayers $1.7 trillion — to that Italian dream machine.
“I want to moderate how much we’re using those aircraft,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, told Pentagon reporters about the Lockheed Martin-built fighter in February. “You don’t drive your Ferrari to work every day, you only drive it on Sundays. This is our high end, we want to make sure we don’t use it all for the low-end fight … We don’t want to burn up capability now and wish we had it later.”
In so many words, Brown was admitting that one of the most expensive weapons systems known to humankind is a failure — to be kept under a heavy tarp in a padlocked garage six days a week. His words riled critics like William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who today writes frequently about Pentagon waste. That’s because the F-35 was sold to the public in the early 1990s not as a luxury item but as a lower-cost, everyday workhorse fighter jet. He said the flaws now deeply embedded in America’s military-industrial complex — the Pentagon’s demands for the newest gadgets and a defense contractor’s skill at upping the ante — “is how you end up with a Ferrari instead of a Camry … or even an Audi.”
The massive swing-and-a-miss that is the F-35 — which already has the Pentagon dreaming of a new, new next-gen fighter that might actually be cheaper and easier to use — is just one symptom of a much greater problem: In spending more on war-related costs than the world’s next 10 nations combined, the U.S. wastes billions on weapon systems that are ineffective and often not even needed. This dollar drain hasn’t let up even as America’s highways fill up with those Ferrari-foiling potholes and bridges collapse, while the world’s richest nation falls behind on everything from high-speed rail to solar energy to teaching our kids.
But the obscene failures of the military industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower tried to warn us about way back in 1961 seem particularly frustrating this spring, as President Joe Biden begs Congress to help him pay for the $2 trillion infrastructure plan he unveiled Wednesday in Pittsburgh. His scheme aims to not only address those decades of shameful neglect of highways but also stop poisoning kids with lead in drinking water, as happened in Flint, Michigan, and tackle 21st century problems like climate change — but the fight will be over how to pay for it.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Biden’s idea, which is to raise corporate taxes back to 2017 levels, before Donald Trump’s irresponsible tax cut that — studies have shown — may have helped slightly fatten the bottom line for Big Business but did little for the everyday worker. But the Chamber of Commerce crowd and their GOP handmaidens on Capitol Hill will fight this with every fiber of their being, and even with Democrats using the 51-vote reconciliation tool there is no guarantee the badly needed plan will pass.
Meanwhile, the money blown on that sleek fighter jet behind the padlock on America’s garage could have — OK, with help from a good accountant, perhaps — painlessly paid for 85% of what the Biden administration is seeking to do here. Or, what if we went crazy and tackled senseless Pentagon waste and raised taxes on corporations AND on billionaires like Jeff Bezos and used the savings for our other massive needs, like making community college and public universities free to attend? But here’s the deal, folks — Uncle Joe isn’t going there, not yet.
The new administration has already signaled to Capitol Hill that its next Defense Department spending plan slated for later this spring will be essentially “flat” — if that word can be used to describe a bloated Pentagon budget of about $704 to $708 billion. The Biden plan would ignore a letter from 50 House progressives pleading for real cuts to instead invest “in diplomacy, humanitarian aid, global public health, sustainability initiatives, and basic research.” But of course there’s also pressure from congressional conservatives who want to spend even more on weapons, to accelerate a new cold war with Russia but especially with China.
The latter idea is not only the morally wrong choice, but ignores how much money we throw away on the barely usable weapons we have now. The F-35 Lightning II — with its premature cracks in its initial testing, inevitable and frequent software glitches, “sluggish” performance in test battles against the older model F-16, and with demands from Pentagon bosses that made it underperform earlier-generation jets but also more costly to maintain — is obviously Exhibit A. Some of the fighter jet’s defects are comically ironic — including the fact that a plane that was named Lightning II has problems flying through lightning.
But critics such as Astore point to other Defense Department boondoggles that could be killed or scaled back. His list includes the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers ($14 billion a pop) which the retired colonel joked is more like Chevy Chase’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of a stumbling Ford, with elevators that don’t work and airplane catapults that don’t catapult, or the Boeing K-46 tanker which — again, ironically — leaks fuel, or the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships that one defense journalist called “floating garbage piles” (at a price of $5 billion for every 10). There’s more, but you probably get the drift by now.
A practical, real world solution here isn’t rocket science, or even aircraft-carrier elevator science. The Biden administration could find hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with America’s more pressing needs at home, as critics like Astore have noted, with simple moves like a) ending its sudden skittishness on carrying out the president’s 2020 campaign promise to end the war in Afghanistan as soon as humanly possible and b) trimming the Pentagon’s annual budget back down to the roughly $600 billion level it was at before its massive boost under President Trump, who was so eager to please the generals, no questions asked. On the F-35, it’s too late to kill the project (for one thing, we’ve already sold it to our so-called allies like the United Arab Emirates) but we could save hundreds of billions by building fewer.
Experts have found that massive military spending — although it does create jobs at defense plants, so often located in the districts of key House members — is actually a drain on a nation’s economy, because it diverts dollars from much more productive uses such as education…or infrastructure. So cutting the Pentagon budget to pay for part of the Biden agenda seems like a no-brainer. But Democrats just can’t quit their reflexive instincts from the Ronald Reagan era (Biden’s heyday in the Senate) that the slightest hint of looking weak on defense will cause them to lose elections — even after the real Cold War ended in 1991.
Real courage and strength would be admitting that America can easily retain the world’s strongest military while still reclaiming hundreds of billions of wasted dollars that could instead improve our schools — and maybe even better educate our kids to make smarter decisions about war and peace than my generation has. And how wonderful would it be to pay for the things that our middle class actually needs with a massive garage sale? We can start with the Ferrari.
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.