hammer and the $12,000 toilet seat... or was it a $12,000 hammer and a
$600 toilet seat? They were the stars of a long list of outlandish
overspending and waste. We were all dutifully outraged and then went
about our business.
The real waste isnt in hammers and toilet seats but big weapon
systems. This bottomless pit of spending comes in two forms. Well
call the first the Were-A-Little-Bit-Over- Budget strategy.
The best example is the V-22 Osprey, a unique tiltrotor aircraft that
can take-off and land vertically, like a helicopter, but has wings and
can also fly horizontally, like an airplane. It was intended for use
by the Air Force, Marines and Navy as both a troop and equipment
carrier and for close-in air-to-ground combat support.
The Osprey was first proposed in 1983 and was approved in 1986 with a
total budget of $2.5 billion. There were a few glitches along the
way, not the least of which was the damned things kept falling out of
the sky. Plus, the project was just a bit behind schedule and a bit
Dick Cheney tried to stop the Osprey when he was Secretary of
Defense. President Reagan wanted it stopped. The Navy wanted it
stopped. But stopping a government program that was at some point
approved is like trying to stop a glacier theoretically possible but
rarely, if ever, actually accomplished.
The V-22 lived on, supported by President Clinton during his two-
terms. More crashes, more money, and still more crashes and more
money. Finally, the beleaguered Osprey became operational for the
Marines in 2007 and the Air Force in 2009.
That $2.5 billion budget? Weve thus far spent about $29 billion and
were being told it will take another $27 billion to create the full
fleet. Thats $56 billion, about 22 times the original budget. One
other thing about a third of the V-22s in operation are out of
service at any given time. Seems were short on spare parts.
But at least there is a functional V-22, expensive though it may be.
Which brings us to the second form of egregious defense department
spending. Well call it the We-Dont-Care-If-Nobody-Wants-It-Were-
Were currently developing the next generation of fighter planes, the
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed-Martin is making the aircraft.
Their winning bid presumed the use of an engine built by Pratt &
Whitney who, in a happy coincidence, also won the bidding process for
the engine. And with good reason. The engine they proposed is a
version of one that already exists and has flown 300,000
extraordinarily reliable miles. Their new engine for the F-35 has
already flown 17,000 test miles without incident.
You would think that would be the end of it. You would be wrong.
There is an alternative engine also being developed for the F-35,
slithering along thanks to the Congressional earmark process. It is
the Program That Will Not Die.
Our last two presidents have opposed the F-35 alternative engine
program. Their Secretaries of Defense opposed it. The Navy doesnt
want it nor does the Air Force or Marines. The Senate actually voted
to block funding for this unwanted orphan program but none of that has
actually slowed it down. So far, weve spent about $1 billion on the
alternative engine and were told it will take another $2.8 billion.
Thats nearly $4 billion for an engine that nobody wants (except for
the good folks at GE Rolls Royce who are making it, and their
congressional allies) to serve as an alternative to an engine that
is extremely reliable and already in production and flying.
Remarkably, there are several other programs chugging along nobody
seems to want and the tab is approaching $10 billion a year in
costs. There are additional tens of billions being spent on the
over budget portion of existing programs.
How do these things happen? Defense contractors are savvy. Theyve
spread out their manufacturing and assembly operations to multiple
states. When a program on which theyre working is threatened, they
instantly have the support of the Congressmen from the district in
which their plants are located and the U.S. Senators from that state.
Cancelled contracts mean lost jobs, tax revenues and a collapse of the
micro-economy that has grown up around those operations. Whether or
not a program is wanted or needed becomes irrelevant.
Since the end of World War II weve been financing a permanent wartime
economy. This idea was first suggested during the war by a group of
Socialists who thought it would be a swell idea to keep unemployment
low. It was seconded by Charles Wilson, the then CEO of General
Electric and Vice Chair of the War Production Board, in 1944. We
havent looked back since. Not when President Eisenhower warned us
about the danger and power of the military industrial complex. Not
when our perpetual readiness has led us into one military misadventure
Of course we want our men and women in uniform to have the best
available equipment and training. It was obscene that we sent our
troops to war in the Middle East without armored vehicles and so we
witnessed the spectacle of our soldiers trying to attach their Kevlar
vests to their Humvees to give them some protection from the roadside
bombs that were devastating them.
So, yes, were in favor of providing our troops the best money can
buy. Unfortunately, what were actually providing them is the most
expensive that money can buy. Thats costing us tens of billions and
without making our troops better equipped or us one bit safer.