Journalism in the Public Interest

Why the Pentagon’s New Fighter Jet Will Now Cost More Than $1 Trillion

A new government report raises red flags about the F-35, the Pentagon’s flagship fighter-plane program.

Visitors take a closer look at a Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet at the Singapore Airshow on Feb. 2, 2010. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon’s big plan for future warplanes — it’s slated to replace nearly all of the other tactical jets in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. But getting there is going to be slow and expensive, as a new government report details.

The JSF program is a massively expensive undertaking. It has cost the government $400 billion to date, and is estimated to run more than $1 trillion to develop, buy and support nearly 2,500 aircraft through 2050.

A major problem, according to the Government Accountability Office report, is that the program is charging ahead with procurement while testing is still in progress. As Michael Sullivan, one of the report’s authors, told Congress, “the manufacturing processes are just never able to get stable because there's so much information coming in from testing and so many engineering changes that are going on.”

In a statement to Congress, the Pentagon officials in charge of the F-35 program said they "have put the program on sound footing for the future" but acknowledged that there was "no more money to put against contract overruns or problems."

The GAO report was notably stern. Here are some of its findings.

Only a portion of testing is finished:


Even though the design is not considered “mature,” production proceeds largely apace:


This leads to extra costs as already constructed planes have to be retrofitted:


The JSF’s software still needs work. Sullivan told Congress that “the development of the software that they need to make this aircraft fully combat capable is still as complex as anything on earth.”


“Supplier performance problems” and changes from testing have caused Lockheed Martin, the plane's manufacturer, to fall behind on production:


Because of safety and other engineering concerns, the Pentagon has reduced the number of planes it is ordering in the near future. But the program is still expected to cost more than $13 billion a year through 2035, and be an ongoing budget struggle for the Pentagon:


The appallingly slow start-up of the F35 program, combined with the frustratingly high number of required fixes makes me wonder whether the Department of Defense really understands how to buy weapons. Bad as they are, the F35 program’s woes are all too common. I doubt it would be possible to find a major new weapon program in the past 50 years that did not go through similar troubles—all of which result in massive cost escalation.

Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to the Department of Defense. NASA, FAA, and many other Federal Agencies (even IRS and FBI) have had major acquisitions that turned out to cost much more than originally estimated.

Some perspective should be applied.  Most people who comment and write these articles could not write a computer program that says, “Hi, my name is Bob.”

The government is developing a relatively standardized fighter aircraft that is loaded with newly developed technology that pushes the limit of what is possible.  Durable stealth, vertical/carrier/runway takeoff, air to air/air to ground/surveillance, high speed, high maneuver, mulitple weapon systems, radars, defence etc.  All of this in a single platform for all services and a generation ahead of other countries’s aircraft.  When testing, errors or weaknesses are found and need to be retroactively applied to new and existing aircraft.

Show me the country that has prospered without military superiority.  It’s a cost of doing business.

They are not building Cessnas.

Hi, My Name is Bob

March 24, 2012, 7:44 a.m.


Show my a country that has prospered by constantly being on a war footing.

Is procuring something before testing is complete a military thing?  I don’t understand why they wouldn’t finish testing, then begin the buying.

Tailhook issues, airframe problems…  I think $1 Trillion is a modest estimate.  2,500 aircraft with a flyaway cost of $36-$135million? Can we assume that cost is estimated for both fielding and sustainment?  With future overruns I think $1trillion is wishful thinking at best.

Bill Purkayastha

March 24, 2012, 9:41 a.m.

And while the US is spending these trillions manufacturing this wonderplane, which it can never use as intended since any equivalent adversary can cremate the American homeland with nuclear weapons, the world’s Greatest Military Ever is still unable to defend illiterate tribesmen in flip flops and turbans.

As a non-American, I find this hilarious.

Bill Purkayastha

March 24, 2012, 9:42 a.m.

That was *defeat* not *defend*

Military superiority.  A vague term at best.  Asset based superiority is the battleship of mentalities.  The US spends 45% of the world’s ‘defense’ money.  In the words of Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information: “In other words, the US defense budget is not just dominant; it is operating at a level completely independent of the perceived threat. In the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy sized itself to the fleets of Britain’s two most powerful potential enemies; America’s defense budget strategists declare it will be “doomsday” if we size to anything less than five times China and Russia combined.” That sounds like a Lockheed-Martin mindset.  Dwight Eisenhower warned us of the Military-Industrial beast, and our main business as a country has been to defend our access to oil.  For the #1 consumer of oil in the world, the US military. We are choking on debt, failing to educate our children to become more successful, and allowing our infrastructure to corrode, all in the name of the best military toys.

Not my real name, sorry

March 25, 2012, 12:27 a.m.

The US does not develop and deploy weapons solely for its own defense (or it’s own offense or advantage, if you insist). The global economy is specialized, and the US specializes in agriculture, medical technology and security, to name a few. Other countries pay for US security provision in a wide range of ways, including direct purchases of weapons systems, alliance participation and diplomatic support, debt purchases (Treasuries) and use of the US dollar as a reserve and general currency. I don’t say this to defend the JSF cost overruns or to endorse US foreign policy or militarism. But critiques that suggest that US behavoir is inexplicably irrational or necessarily corrupt are foolish and won’t gain any real leverage in debate with actual decision makers. Politicians, procurement officials, major contractors and serious commentators, even those who favor long-term demilitarization and domestic development, face a delicate balancing act. Overinvestment in JSF is a problem, but underinvestment presents real risks over several decades as well. Suppose the future, peaceful world (utopia, really) really needs only 50 to 100 total fighter planes, for limited missions by UN sanction. Current plane designs may not be sustainable in future environments, and small quantities can’t support the necessary expertise and manufacturing capacity—you’d have 50 $100 billion planes instead of 2,500 $100 million planes. Even if your goal is zero planes and zero capacity, if you want to get there without passing through Armageddon first, the JSF may be a rational gamble even at $2 trillion total cost, depending on your time horizon, your view of the role of air power, and your expectations about the geopolitical environment of alliances and conflicts. The US may in fact be a self-serving oil-hungry empire. Believe that if you will. It may also be the home of idealistic, naive liberators or of corrupt arms merchants. None of these interpretations of US motives are necessary to explain massive investment in programs like JSF or a large standing military.

@boltok: “Show me the country that has prospered without military superiority.  It’s a cost of doing business.”


Are these planes necessary? Who will be the enemy? Can they hold the ground or just destroy real good? Are we developing robots who will do the leg work so we can make use of these super weapons in imposing Pax Americana? I thought the New American Century idea hit a spending limit ! Didn’t the Roman Empire destroy itself by overreaching for too long? Are they really bitchin’ to fly? Is it super fun to push a button and destroy a vulnerable enemy or a defenseless target because you are just taking orders? Good article, these weapons will be of no use in the future except to sell to Israel although I heard that they are starting to think twice about them.

I hate to be a nag, but remember the golden hammer?  Military procurement has been HUGE business and a monster in its own right for decades.  You can parse it out skillfully, as did “Sorry” above, or focus on the “defense” explanation solely, AND you can account for all the well-meaning individuals caught in the security net as actors.  But when the day is done (and I pray for that), the ultimate reality is that defense is big business and is going to fight for that right as tenaciously as private corporations already do.  And since they are both in bed together, would we ever expect less?


“Show me the country that has prospered without military superiority”:

The Netherlands
South Korea
New Zealand
Czech Republic

um, is this a weapon to fight the last war, the current war, or some war in the future?  Could it have prevented 9/11?  Can it prevent clever, highly motivated foes from using our own technology against us?  Maybe this is not a submarines-and-superjets kind of world any more. Maybe its a use-a-virus-over-the-internet-to-blow-up-bomb-plants kind of world.

What a pathetic waste of money and resources.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

This project continues because high-tech, high-cost weapons systems are the only form of economic stimulus that can make it through the Republican-dominated Congress. I have read that the F-35 has suppliers from something like 45 states, which means 90 senators (and who knows how many representatives) can be blackmailed with the threat of closing down factories in their districts if the project is canceled.

It says something (and not something good) that while we’re unwilling to spend money to create jobs repairing our crumbling parks, roads and bridges, we’re quite willing to spend a fortune building machines that in the best case will never be used.

The big hurdle on the project is, frankly, that you can’t be all things to all people, and that’s what the F-35 wants to be.  It can’t be fixed in software because it needs to meet too many conflicting criteria in the real world, long before the computers turn on.

From (thankfully only indirect) experience, what’ll happen is that the Pentagon will buy a pile, and the software will reduce it to a smaller set of features to make it (barely) usable, and we’ll hope nobody needs to use them while they hunt up some replacement planes.

Our tax dollars at work.  I remember a time when Lockheed-Martin’s management never would have green-lit such a blatantly stupid project.

We used to spend this kind of money on space exploration. Now we spend it to police our neighbors. I think the movie Idiocracy is coming to be!

Will it survive cheap ground-to-air missiles fitted with the best IR, radar, and laser technology Corporate America can give away fired in volleys of 8…28…38…or more?

I know how the production of these planes can be significantly cut to save American tax payers from footing such a large outrageous bill—have the manufacturing outsourced to China! Just like every other industry and product!

lollll…not to worry, Barry G - undoubtedly these aircraft will contain some capacitors, ICs, and/or processors that will be made in the PRC and can likewise be made to fail in a predictable manner under predictable conditions.

Everyone is focusing on the wrong issue here. Check out how COOL that thing looks! Surely it’s worth a trillion bucks based on aesthetics alone…

“Show me the country that has prospered without military superiority.  It’s a cost of doing business “

HaHaHaaaaaaaaaa! spend some spare time in Switzerland or Japan or ?

“The US does not develop and deploy weapons solely for its own defense (or it’s own offense or advantage, if you insist)....................Other countries pay for US security provision in a wide range of ways, including direct purchases of weapons systems,.........................., debt purchases (Treasuries) and use of the US dollar as a reserve and general currency”

at least we are getting to the truth if nothing else - give the bankers a reserve currency to play with that is subsidized / promoted / strongarmed for the use by other countries for the banks to make trillions

so the care and feeding of the Banks and Big Oil is the always the end game for the subjugation of the american populace for the next anti-bad guy device

...........endless bad guys to guard against and if there is none, we will create “new” enemies !

The primary problem with the cost of this type of fighter jet program in today’s environment is the continued desire to ‘man’ the aircraft. A large part of the cost associated with an advanced weapon’s system like the F-35 centers around the survivability of the pilot.  Just like with the space program, sending an equally capable unmanned probe to another world is far less expensive and a manned flight.  We need to think strategically when developing weapons systems for the future and recognize that in today’s world, and in the future, manned aircraft in combat will simply be too expensive for most combat situations.  Disposable mission-specific systems will be far more cost effective; and the argument that such systems cannot be easily recalled after launch has largely been addressed with modern technology.

@Bob:  Drones aren’t the answer.  To start with, they have survivability problems that derive from that very need for remote control.  I quote Aviation Week ( ) regarding the RQ-170 Sentinel lost in Iraq:

The accident was caused by a “lost [data] link, followed by, or simultaneous with, another malfunction,” says a second official involved with the program. Putting the loss into perspective, “We’ve lost over 50 MQ-1s [Predators] and 9s [Reapers], so this should not be a surprise.”

End quote.  Beyond the weaknesses introduced by the need for the communications link, the time lag that link introduces, the difficulty of remotely interpreting a two-dimensional display of a three-dimensional reality (four, if I again include the time lag), there is the matter of morality and common sense:  Common sense should tell you that we don’t want people who lack morality having access to a remote-control military.

Analysis of “conservative” thought and action reveals that their belligerence ramps up in a direct relationship with their sense of personal security.  Give them more power - that is, remove more personal risk - and they get more belligerent.  Remove political risk by reducing or eliminating the impact of lost American lives upon public perception, and they will get more belligerent yet.

Simply put, a remote-control military will result in the “conservatives” killing more humans which is a bad thing when the immunity of the American people against the consequences of their actions is an illusion in light of the fact that America’s borders are porous because those same “conservatives” don’t want to constrict their profit stream with true border security. 

And now we have to add a new factor:  Our “conservatives” have been giving away remote-control drone technology by losing them.  Those who sell drones like to boast of how easy they are to operate…how safe the operator is from repercussions…that is a two-edged sword; there is no universal law that says that only Americans or those friendly to Americans will be operating drones.

“Skynet” isn’t a computer; it is a “conservative” with the power to direct that computer’s actions.  I dread the thought a Cheney or a Santorum empowered to deliver death with the push of a button when the restraint of the personal risk associated with radioactive debris wafting back into their faces is not a factor.

sentence “a remote-control military will result in the “conservatives” killing more humans which is a bad thing when the immunity” should have read “a remote-control military will result in the “conservatives” killing more humans which is a bad thing - especially when the immunity”.

I was thinking it…apparently it got lost in translation between head and hands yielding that nationalistic run-on sentence instead.

I’m fascinated by this. I think if there’s got to be wars, then those who fight them should have the best tools to do it. I prefer there not be, and I definitely don’t like the thought of a single aircraft fighter platform costing a trillion bucks—that’s six percent of our entire GDP by the way. On the other hand, a joint strike fighter seems to be a militarily sound idea—flexible, powerful, etc.

Am I crazy but is it possible that we may need some additional fighter systems which don’t rely on as much software n’ stuff though? I mean, while 24 million lines of code sounds like a lot, even ONE line of code seems risky basket for us to put our whole batch of eggs into. It would be more reassuring to know there’s a substantial investment in mechanical systems which can execute/duplicate many of the functions of these jets. I don’t mean in single systems, I mean in multiple, redundant ways. The ability to fall back on pre-digital, non-computer-driven systems would actually give us more flexibility.

I don’t know if I want us to return to the glory days of the B-17 and the P-51 necessarily. But while those platforms had vulnerabilities, they weren’t susceptible to hacking!

If you think the attacks on these jets are going to be limited to missiles from other jets, you’re dead wrong.  Because every one of those 9.5 million lines of code on the aircraft is a point of vulnerability.  And I’d hate to have the whole JSF program go from generations-ahead to achilles heel with one virus or other crippling EW attack.

@Jon Olsen:  What I worry about isn’t so much the code…it is effectively “containerized” within the aircraft and doesn’t exactly have an active internet connection provide a path for the insertion of code that would provide “the enemy” with an advantage.

Me, I worry about the day that somebody manages to make firing missiles that generate an electromagnetic pulse along with their traditional shrapnel a reality.

(I almost said “sandboxed”, but if you’re going to use techno-babble, best to use a word like “containerized” which will convey an image and so, perhaps, convey the meaning.)

@ibsteve2u: I agree with your concern that a minimized ‘political risk’ may increase belligerence.  However, that is a human failing that has little to do with ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ thinking.  As humans we need to deal with our natural tendency toward belligerence and not feel that a weapons system should be so designed that it may minimize that tendency because of increased personal or political risk.  Weapons systems are the ultimate ‘apolitical’ system, as they will kill anything that they are pointed at.  We need to find solutions to address this natural tendency within ourselves, our culture, and our politics.

As for the weaknesses in today’s drone systems, you can consider these systems as Drone 1.0.  Long before the F-35 system is perfected for combat, future drones will far outclass today’s capabilities, regardless of whether these future systems are developed by us or by others.

Yeah. But, it looks really neat.

I wonder if the $1 trillion accounts for the time value of money.

Standard (and correct for lots of reasons) financial analysis would compute the total as a present value. If the $ trillion is a simple summation then it is a substantial overstatement of the true cost.

Nevertheless, we know that with our help S. Korea is fielding a new lightweight fighter/trainer for around $20 million per copy, IIRC. Add $10 million to Americanize it and we would have a machine suitable for most purposes seen in the past twenty years; e.g., patrolling terrorist airspace, lobbing an occasional smart bomb, chasing down wayward Cessnas headed for the whitehouse. Replace half the anticipated f-35’s with such a plane, and there would be enough left over for whatever.

all i ask for, is just please use some lube this time, is that too much to ask? even just a dab of vaseline would be better than the way they usually do it to us.

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