Here come the nerds! Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Georgia Tech are working together to debug the balky software of the F-35, now the costliest weapons system in military history. Yet rather than teaming up to take down the bully, they’re joining forces to save his skin.
But who can blame them? The Federal grants keep on coming, and this bully is far more cunning than his prosaic movie counterpart. For decades, he has figured out just how much he can throw his weight around to get what he wants without getting expelled. The F-35’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corporation, has now shaken loose a mind-melting $1 trillion in lunch money from American taxpayers. Let me say that again, $1 trillion! Enough is enough.
There’s a saying these days: “the new normal.” It’s mainly used to describe our dramatically-altered existence resulting from coronavirus to which we’ve (supposedly) become accustomed. It could, unfortunately, just as aptly be applied to our national tolerance for the federal procurement side of significant defense fabrication contracts.
Even a decade ago, people had already become numb to the cost overrun of the F-35. It was ridiculous then. It’s even more ridiculous now. Lockheed Martin hated talking about it and, not surprisingly, still does. But like that wart in the middle of your forehead, you refused to get removed, and somehow, after years, you hope your friends stop noticing it.
The F-35 boondoggle begs many questions. Here’s one to start. How did it happen? The contracting offices of major corporations are usually exacting in their due diligence when developing pricing packages. That Lockheed Martin undershot the cost of the F-35 so severely that it was so conservative in its pricing analysis raises eyebrows and necessitates inquiry. The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General should immediately insert itself into the inner workings of the F-35 program. Doing so would finally provide a desperately-needed additional layer of accountability. This much is owed to the American people for having long-footed an exorbitant bill.
No doubt, Lockheed Martin has a stockpile of excuses. First, it might actually claim, even confidently, that the F-35 is worth the $1 trillion price tag. Or rather, it might do something downright tricky. Using a double negative, it might posit that the price can't – at least yet – be proven not worthwhile. That's because Lockheed Martin might reason "value" can only truly be measured in times of conflict, for that's when a platform is genuinely put to the test. Still, given the eye-watering cost of the F-35 relative to every other weapons system in the U.S.’s arsenal – in addition to the fact that our military has an array of alternatives at its fingertips – calculating a scenario in which relying upon the F-35 is sensible is a steep task.
A second excuse Lockheed Martin might deploy is that, because the F-35 was designed from the beginning to be an internationally-manufactured fighter jet, at least some supply-chain issues were to be expected. More than 1,000 suppliers, a number of which are overseas, contribute approximately 300,000 parts to the F-35's construction. Still, Lockheed Martin's job was to properly assess the risk factors associated with such a complicated assembly line and integrate them into the contract's risk table. And mitigating processes should have been put into place for overseeing, producing and ensuring quality production.
To get a sense of why Lockheed Martin has been able to escape the wrath of the high school principal for so long, consider the following. It is a $100 billion-corporation that, on a bad day, employs 110,000 people, including many highly paid D.C. lobbyists. It has been around for more than 100 years. Indeed, a notorious number of "Lockheed babies," whose parents – and even grandparents – also worked for the aerospace corporation. With a lot of staying power, Lockheed Martin is like a fourth branch of the American government. In that light, then, it's unsurprising that the F-35 has become the poster child of federal procurement swampiness.
Fourteen years after the F-35’s first flight, it’s time to do with the fighter jet what was done with the F-22—then the most advanced fighter jet ever developed, and at insane cost. At a certain point, the Pentagon simply decided that it had a sufficient number of units to deploy to areas of high need. The American taxpayer must cut the ceiling, and the Pentagon must move on to other options, like the development of the F-18 and some modified versions of the F-15.
Let’s call in the Inspector General and, in the meantime, put Lockheed Martin in after-school detention.
Lynn Haueter served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Congressman Ron Estes-R Kansas and Executive Assistant to Ways and Means Ranking Member Congressman Kevin Brady-R Texas, as well as advising other Members of Congress. Haueter has a Master’s degree in education, served as Chair of an international non-profit educational foundation, and taught in both the public and private sectors.