Is the F-35 too pricey to fail? Is the F-35 a platinum-plated spork? Taxpayers for Common Sense senior policy analyst Wendy J Jordan joins Steve Ellis for a readout of the TCS cut list of legacy weapons systems that President Biden, Congress, and the Department of Defense need to come to grips with this budget cycle. Weapons systems recommended for cutting: B-1, E-8 JSTARS, RC-125, EQ-4, A-10, and F-22 aircraft platforms. Plus, the Littoral Combat Ship program and the Minuteman Missile System.
Listen below, scroll down for a transcript.
Welcome to all American taxpayers seeking common sense. You’ve made it to the right place. For over 25 years, TCS, that’s Taxpayers for Common Sense, has served as an independent, non-partisan, budget watchdog group based in Washington, DC. We believe in fiscal policy for America that is based on facts. Our team at TCS works to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and that our government operates within its means. It’s literally our mission. We believe in transparency and accountability, because no matter where you are on the political spectrum, no one wants to see their taxpayer dollars wasted.
You might not know, two-thirds of the federal budget is what is referred to as mandatory spending; most notably, social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These are programs that ask that legislative changes from Congress continue on from year to year. The remaining third, about $1.4 trillion, is the discretionary budget. This is made up of a dozen spending bills that fund government each year.
When you hear talk about government shutdown, this is the money and legislation they’re talking about. And when you’re talking about discretionary spending, the big dog is national defense which eats about half of the pie. Clearly adequately funding securing the nation is an expensive and necessary endeavor. That said, rounding errors at the Pentagon are equal to some agencies’ budgets. It’s important to ensure that we’re spending what we need, not just what some want. That’s why with a new commander in chief and a new SecDef, we pay attention to things such as legacy weapon system review in preparation for the administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request.
We’ve been around for 25 years so this is far from our first transition. We’ve seen previous administrations make bold proclamations that turn out to be whimpers by the time the ink is dry on the legislation. But we’ve also seen systems sidelined or kicked to the curb. Considering the dollars involved, TCS keeps a very keen eye on these matters.
And podcast listeners, you are fortunate that joining us today is TCS senior policy analyst, Wendy Jordan. Before coming to TCS to watchdog spending seven years ago, Wendy dealt with military issues from a variety of perspectives inside the Pentagon literally, on congressional staff, and at a defense contractor, so she knows a thing or 2 or 12. Welcome to the podcast, Wendy.
Hi, Steve. Are you ready to rumble?
You better bet I am. Okay, Wendy, as I mentioned, the Biden administration has announced an internal review of legacy military systems concentrating on three major areas: shipbuilding, legacy aircraft and ships, and the nuclear enterprise. Helpful sort that we are, Taxpayers for Common Sense has already created a detailed list of programs that should be at the very top of the cut list. So briefly, Wendy, how do we develop the list?
Couple of things went into the cut list. First of all, Cold War legacy, truly legacy programs that are still being used today. Are they still mission-ready? Are they still required by the current strategy?
Then the other half of the list, roughly, is systems that the military services themselves have said, “We would like to either cut back on the number of these weapons that we have, or we’d like to get rid of them altogether.” When a military service says, “We don’t need this anymore or we need fewer of these,” we believe Congress should thoughtfully look at that argument and make a decision.
All right, Wendy. With that in mind, let’s dive right in. What tops the list?
I think you have to start with the F-35. It is, after all, the most expensive procurement in the history of the Pentagon. So think about that. An aircraft system that is the most expensive procurement in the history of the Pentagon. Not an aircraft carrier, not a submarine, not the nuclear triad, it’s a single aircraft. That’s a little mind-boggling. And so that’s where we start.
The F-35 is flown in three different variants by the three military services that fly tactical aircraft; so the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps. So it’s really three different aircraft, three different variants. All have their expensive requirements involved in whether or not you’re landing on an aircraft carrier, whether or not you’re doing vertical takeoff and landing. It’s all very expensive.
One of the first products that I worked on when I came to work at TCS was something called the unaffordable F-35. We argued at that time that the services should be allowed to make a high-low mix of tactical aircraft, not go all-in with the F-35, which is hugely expensive to maintain. But to be allowed to hang onto some F-15s or some of F-16s or some F-18s. The other services could presumably make a high-low mix and not have the huge expense of having all their tactical aircraft F-35s.
I find it ironic that in the New York Times piece over the weekend, they talk about number one, Chairman Smith’s reference to the F-35 being a rat hole that we’re pounding money down. Also, to one of the Air Force four-star generals saying that the F-35 is the type of plane that you really only fly on Sundays. I guess that’s like the good car that you take to church or synagogue. I don’t know. No, that’s not how I think of tactical aircraft. They should be not so expensive that you can’t afford to fly them.
Yeah. You can see that on the used tactical aircraft live. “Yeah, just a little old lady. She only did it for groceries and going to church on Sundays.”
So I did see that editorial, and the way they titled it, it was too pricey to fail. They even called it a Swiss army knife. As I think about that report that you wrote about the unfordable F-35, we called it a platinum-plated spork. I think that might be a better term because I liked my Swiss army knife. Actually, I don’t really like sporks.
But to their point, is the F-35 too pricey to fail? I mean, what position are we in? What can we do?
As a budget watchdog, we’re never going to say something is too pricey to fail. Come on. The F-22 was too pricey to fail till they terminated the program. I would say if you’re going to try to make that argument, what I would classify the F-35 as is too politically well-connected to fail. It’s very strategic, the way contracts have been let for the smallest widget in the F-35. The percentage of congressional districts that have some piece of the F-35 is, I think, in the high 70s. That’s where it’s too something to fail. It’s too well-connected to fail in the minds of the political chattering classes.
We are not in the political chattering class. We’re in the budget watchdog business and so we don’t buy that argument.
You talked about trillion dollars in sustainment costs. I mean, one of the things is that old axiom, “When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.” Maybe painful, but to keep throwing money at this system that we don’t think is necessarily worth it or works, we need to find our way out and extricate it so that we’re not throwing good money after bad.
Want to keep moving along through our list, Wendy. We didn’t just stop at the F-35. Let’s take another look at another area that was targeted: shipbuilding and legacy ships. I see that, on your list, we have the littoral combat ship. There’s certainly a troubled history there, so please tell our podcast listeners a bit more about the LCS.
LCS is a small surface ship. It had an interesting approach to its procurement. The Navy went with two shipyards who will both be producing LCS. That’s a complicated way to do things. Then at the beginning of the Obama administration, when we had Secretary Hagel, former Republican Senator from Nebraska, in one of his first statements about shipbuilding, he referred to LCS being used in only a permissive environment. I remember thinking, “What did he just say?” I wound it back and I listened to it again. He said, “It’ll be used in a permissive environment.” Well, what’s a permissive environment? Navy fleet week in New York City? I don’t understand what you would use it for.
So Navy has been trying to divest themselves of the first four ships in the class. Congress has gotten in the way, slowed that down a little bit. Again, if the Navy is saying, “We don’t need these hulls. Let them retire them for goodness sakes.” In our opinion, if you have a warship that’s only going to be used in a permissive environment, maybe it’s not the ship that we should be buying.
It was a doomed program from the start. Bad idea to have cheap, lightly-manned ships split to two shipyards, one in the Great Lakes. It just was not a very well thought out system, and then they clung to it for so long.
Well, interesting you would call it doomed from the start, and I appreciate that phrase. Having worked in the Pentagon, having worked at a major defense contractor, I’ve seen some doomed procurements in my time and I would not disagree with you on that. It was a very strange approach to procuring a ship. To have then the secretary of defense say, “We’re only going to use them in a permissive environment.” Okay, we’ve gone down a weird procurement path, we’ve ended up with two very different ships, and we’re only going to use them in a permissive environment. Not the kind of warship that we believe the United States Navy should be procuring.
Yeah, not too many sailors going to be wanting to walk up the brow onto the ship there and know that they can only sail in permissive environments. Or maybe they will, I don’t know.
Not too many parents want their kids to be assigned to a ship that’s only going to be, I guess, at Navy fleet week in New York City, right? What’s a permissive environment these days?
Exactly. All right, Wendy. So we’ve talked about F-35s that are already flying. We’ve now talked about the LCS that’s already sailing. So let’s talk about something that we haven’t wasted too much money on yet that’s on our list. Let’s see. How about not buying shiny new ICBMs?
What a great idea. We’ve been talking about this for a number of years. The nuclear enterprise, as it’s called, is a triad, a three-legged stool. One leg of the stool is submarine-launched Intercontinental ballistic missiles, one leg is air-launched, and the third leg is based in silos in the western part of the United States. The old system is the Minuteman. The plan is to replace the Minuteman with a new ground-based strategic deterrence, or GBSD because we love to use our acronyms in the Pentagon, don’t we?
Our argument has been for years that the ICBM is the least survivable leg of the triad. You want to talk about a rat hole, Chairman Smith talks about the rat hole of the F35. Missile silos are literally holes in the ground that we are pouring money into. If the protesters know where every single ICBM silo is, I guarantee you the North Koreans and the Russians and the Chinese know where they are. So why exactly would we spend money on the least survivable leg of the triad when we already have enough nuclear weapons to meet the requirement of keeping the United States safe?
It’s not just money, it’s another trillion dollars. So you’ve got sustainment of the F-35, a trillion dollars. Ka-ching. You got modernizing ICBMs, another trillion dollars. Ka-ching. We need to start reining the Senate and really thinking through what is going to secure the nation.
And speaking of securing the nation, one of the things that this study is supposed to be looking at is legacy aircraft. So, Wendy, looking over our list, what are some of the aircraft that we have on there that were designed to take on the best planes the Soviet Union was about to build?
We have on our cut list, the F-22, which was the last program that was considered too pricey to fail. F-22 was truncated early in the Obama administration. And when the then secretary of defense, Robert Gates, made the decision to end procurement at fewer than 190 aircraft, he said that the mission, I’m paraphrasing here obviously, the mission that the F-22 was designed to meet was not the mission that the United States was going to be pursuing going forward.
The F22s are still in the inventory, obviously, and they are still being flown so they still have to be maintained. They still have to be modernized to a certain extent. You’re just continuing to pour taxpayer dollars into a program that’s not moving forward. F-22 is one of those legacy aircraft that really is a Cold War mission. And the other one is the B-1 bomber.
There’s 62 B-1s in the inventory. In, I think, the last presidential budget request, the Air Force said that they would like to retire 17 of them. That was blocked. So again, when the Air Force is saying, “We could get out of this,” we should probably let them do that. That’s why we put that on the cut list for consideration. Air Force has been trying to downsize it. Maybe the Pentagon should let them do that.
That kind of hits the kind of rounding out the rest of our list. There were several legacy systems that the services have been trying to get rid of. Congress has been stiff-arming them and saying they can’t do that. So if you could rapid-hit those last few items, that’d be great.
Right. These are all Air Force, and this is going on for several years. It’s the J-Stars, the RC-125, the EQ-4, and the A-10. A-10 is in a slightly different category. Air Force has been trying to get rid of the A-10 for donkey’s years. I can’t even tell you. I think it goes back to at least in late ’90s. But the ground troops that the A-10 support, which is mostly Army and some Marine Corps, they really like the mission of the A-10 aircraft, which is to support the troops on the ground and keep them safe. So it’s an important mission.
The Air Force laughably says that the F-35 is going to pick up that mission. I don’t see how that’s possible. Low and slow is not really what the F-35’s mission profile is, but we put it on the list because it is similar to the other three in that the Air Force has been saying, “We need to divest ourselves of this.” And the Congress has been saying, “No, no, no.”
Unfortunately, it seems to be motivated by either where the system is produced or where it’s stationed because nobody likes to lose a mission from their local base. They’re always looking over their shoulders at the possibility of base closure. We don’t look at it that way. We look at it as what makes the most responsible use of taxpayer dollars. Not where’s it built, where does it reside? None of that. We think that the Pentagon should be looking closely at what the Air Force has been trying to do and putting it into the budget requests.
Right. It gets your point earlier. Close air support is a legitimate role and an important role. Congress needs to look at what is the Air Force trying to do and how to meet that role? Clearly, F-35 is not the way. But there must be some other way and it may not necessarily be the A-10.
We’ve gone through our list. I hope that Defense Secretary Austin has been taking good notes. This does bring up some good questions. I have this feeling of deja vu. I mean, hasn’t the Pentagon gone through reviews like this before? Wendy, if you could tell our podcast listeners what have been the results of those type of reviews, and what can we hopefully expect here?
I think the political footing of Congress has really changed over the years. The first review like this that I can remember was in the George Herbert Walker Bush administration when Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense. He launched something called the Major Aircraft Review. The Major Aircraft Review said Cold War is coming to a close. What are the missions for these aircraft? Should we continue to procure them?
I can tell you the tale of two cities here. Two Navy systems, the A-12, which was in full-scale development. A-12 they decided they weren’t going to buy, and so they terminated that contract. That’s a story for a different podcast. It ended up in huge litigation, but they stopped the development of that aircraft and they never bought it. So that was one outcome of the Major Aircraft Review.
Another outcome was the F-14. The F-14, it was decided they were going to stop procuring new F-14s, They weren’t going to get rid of the F-14. So they stopped procuring new ones, kind of like the F-22 at the beginning of the Obama administration. But you still have to modernize it. You still have to hang weapons on it. You still have to train people in it. So there are continued costs to the F-14.
So that was, let’s say for sake of argument, I think it was 1990 that the Major Aircraft Review happened. It wasn’t until the end of the Clinton administration or the very beginning of the George W. Bush administration when the Navy actually started divesting themselves of the squadrons and transitioning those squadrons into F-18s. So it was about a decade they continued to equip the plane, they continued to fly the plane, they continued to be operational. But they said, hearkening back to the Major Aircraft Review, “We have to go forward into the F-18 and transition to that.”
Well, let me just tell you the heartburn that that caused mostly in the retired Navy tactical community. It was the retired Tomcat pilots and they were crushed that the F-14 was going to be taken out of the inventory. This was before social media. I can only imagine the frenzy that it would be now. But Navy brass had to say, “No, this is a plan that’s been in place for a decade, and we are going to divest ourselves of this aircraft.” Congress let them do that. It’s hard for me to imagine in today’s political climate the same thing happening.
Definitely a cautionary tale. And as I recall, the F-14 could have gotten listed in the credits for Top Gun. Speaking of which, as far as things being recycled, Top Gun 2 is supposed to be coming out this summer so we’ll see if there’s a cameo from the Tomcat.
Cannot wait for Top Gun 2. I’ve been waiting, I don’t know what, 25 years for this?
Something like that. So final question, Wendy, trillion-dollar question: why, as a nation, are we here? What is it about combat system development that leads to these legacy systems that can’t be stopped and greater and greater waste?
Well, Steve, once a program gets through the R&D process and becomes a procurement program, there has been a lot of money spent. Suddenly, once you’re the idea that’s been selected to respond to this R&D problem, your company is the company that’s been selected. Your company is based somewhere, its manufacturing is done maybe somewhere else from where the corporate headquarters are, and you have suppliers in your procurement pipeline. So if you’re smart, and contractors have gotten really, really smart about this in the last 20 years, if you’re smart, think back to what we said about the F-35 at the beginning of this, you spread the money. You spread the work across several different states, congressional districts. If you’re really smart, you look at where the appropriations subcommittee members live and you throw a little money into that congressional district.
You spread the work around, you spread the money around. Pretty soon, every program has a constituency of workers and of members of Congress who really want that system to keep going, to succeed in the procurement process, and to be built for years. It is a system that has developed in the last, as I say, 15 or 20 years, that has become almost impossible to stop. The waste that can be perpetuated by the system is staggering. When you have a top-line budget of $705 billion for the Pentagon last year, that’s a lot of money that can be spent in foolish ways. That’s what we’re about, pointing that stuff out, writing cut lists, making recommendations, and there’s a lot of work still to be done.
Absolutely. Well, thanks, Wendy. This has been really great for our listeners. I think about Lockheed Martin who makes the F-35. They’re not shy about it. They even have it on their website how many States and distributing. You can find out exactly what’s being made in your hometown because there’s a lot of hometown pride in that F-35 widget being built there.
There you have it, Budget Watchdog All Federal listeners. You’ve made it through the third podcast. Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll subscribe and share this episode with friends and colleagues. Next time, we’ll be talking with another TCS policy expert and raising the curtain on the Biden budget machinations.
Remember, we’re always seeking your input suggestions, questions, and help. Let us know what you want to put on the cut list going forward. So send your emails directly to me, firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time, we’ll keep reading the bills, highlighting wasteful programs that poorly spend our money, and shift long-term risk to taxpayers.