A couple of weeks ago I discussed the rising cost of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Pentagon officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee that costs for the F-35 had jumped more than 50 percent since the program began in 2001. Now the Pentagon has informed Congress that the price tag is going to be even higher when new estimates are completed in the summer.
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which obtained a copy of the Pentagon document just given to Congress, the price tag is going to be even higher:
Based on figures in the document, the average cost of one F-35 -- $62 million when the program was launched in 2002 -- could rise to $115.5 million, not counting inflation, by the time all 2,457 planes that the U.S. plans to buy are built. Including inflation, the government now expects each F-35 to cost an average of $133.6 million. But even that figure could swell to more than $150 million when revised estimates are completed in June.
The new analysis says the Pentagon's earlier report was developed largely using cost projections by the F-35 Joint Program Office, which works directly with Lockheed and has consistently been too optimistic.
A bigger problem appears to be that when weapon systems are conceived, there is a tendency for project supporters to low-ball the costs in order to squeeze as many projects into the procurement pipeline as possible. The GAO noted that the military branches “overpromise capabilities and underestimate costs to capture the funding needed to start and sustain development programs.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that projects that turn out to be duds are hard to kill. Not only do defense contractors lobby to extend dubious programs, they are usually not punished for their failures and cost overruns. Indeed, the Pentagon has provided bonus payments, or "award fees," to contactors even if projects are behind schedule and over-budget.
The need for these expensive weapons programs and the U.S. foreign policy that necessitates them is debatable. But what isn’t debatable is the fact that taxpayers can’t afford to keep shilling out for perpetual cost overruns at the Pentagon at a time when deficits are also soaring.