As on most issues, president-elect Donald Trump has been all over the map on military issues throughout his campaign and post-campaign pronouncements. One day he muses about disbanding NATO, the next day he promises to “rebuild” the US military, which is already by far not just the most well-funded war machine, but the most well-funded enterprise of any kind on Planet Earth (the 2017 US military budget exceeds Wal-Mart’s 2015 gross revenues by about $100 billion). He’s hard to pin down.
Still, Trump’s December 12 tweet on Lockheed’s F-35 contract is encouraging to those who’d like to see real US “defense” spending cuts. “The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” he wrote. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
If the F-35 — called the Joint Strike Fighter because it’s supposed to be used by all US armed forces and several allies, replacing various other aircraft — ever actually rolls out ready for combat, its life cycle cost will come to more than a trillion dollars and the prices of various models will run in the range of $100 million per aircraft. For the sake of comparison, that’s more than three times the price of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the current US Navy and Marine Corps fighter/attack workhorse.
The F-35 is indeed one of the more insane wastes of taxpayer money in recent history. If Trump could find a way to kill the whole project, both taxpayers and the armed forces would be better off for its demise.
But even if Trump is serious, he’s in for a fight with 75 years of history. Since World War II, the primary function of the US government has been to transfer wealth from the pockets of American workers to the bank accounts of “defense” contractors like Lockheed Martin.
Even as long ago as 1960, when president Dwight Eisenhower warned America about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex” in his farewell speech, his warning was too little, too late. American politicians already were, and still are, addicted to military spending (and to the campaign contributions it calls forth and the make-work jobs it brings to their states and districts).
Breaking that bad habit is a daunting job. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is admitting you have a problem. The only problem American politicians seem to see with spending half a trillion dollars a year on the pretense of “defending” the US is that they don’t get to spend more.
Instead of singling out particular boondoggles like the F-35, Trump might have more success imposing fiscal discipline across the board. That is, demand spending cuts to the US Department of Defense’s top budget line and let DoD figure out the details of how to make do with less.
A 75% cut, phased in over ten years, sounds about right. The US government would still be the single biggest military spender on the planet, but only by about 2 1/2 times, instead of 10 times, as much as its closest competitor (China).