The F-22’s hidden cost

America’s military spending is out of hand, at our economy’s peril

In April 1953, Dwight Eisenhower — Republican president, West Point graduate, former Allied commander, liberator of Europe — spoke to newspaper editors about the coming arms race.

“Every gun that is made,” he said, “every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.”

Fifty-one years later, George W. Bush — Republican president, Yale graduate, former National Guard pilot — presides over a federal budget that is almost $500 billion in the red. This is thanks in part to a massive tax cut, but it was helped along by unprecedented military expenditures. Almost 20 cents of every federal tax dollar goes to defense. The Pentagon budget is currently $460 billion, and that doesn’t even count the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, that brings up a good point. We are at war and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 9/11, the war on terrorism has repeatedly been invoked to justify massive military spending. The problem is that many of the weapons and defense projects taxpayers fund have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. Worst of all, no one is talking about it — not Republicans certainly, and not even Democrats, who have just as much at stake in propping up a military-industrial complex that includes plenty of union employees.

To find an example, you need go only as far as Marietta.

For more than a decade, Lockheed-Martin has been designing and building a new breed of jet fighter to replace the F-15. When the F-22, called the Raptor, went into production at Lockheed’s Marietta plant in 2001, it was supposed to be able to fly two hours between maintenance checkups. Instead, the plane could fly barely a half-hour before it needed maintenance, according to the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group famous for exposing the Pentagon’s $436 hammer. What’s more, F-22s have exhibited “260 types of failure,” according to the POGO, which two years ago recommended to Congress that the program be scrapped.

In response to continuing criticism of the Raptor, Bush’s director of management and budget, Josh Bolten, called earlier this year for an in-depth study of the program with an eye toward figuring whether it’s really needed and whether its problems can be fixed. His directive was leaked to the press in February.

But although the Air Force has scaled back its initial order of 750 jets to 218, it already has spent more than $36 billion on the program, about half the projected final costs.

Cost per jet? $329 million. The original projected cost? $50 million per jet.

“F-22 proponents are pushing very hard, because they figure once the tap is turned on, it will be impossible to stop,” says Christopher Hellman, an analyst with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Where’s the outrage? You obviously won’t find it in Bush. So maybe you’d find it in his challenger, John Kerry. Think again. Desperate for the support of union workers, he’s not likely to speak out for abolishing programs like the Raptor. After all, the plant’s International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is well aware of the Raptor’s precarious position and is very politically active. It organizes letter-writing efforts, contributes to campaigns and lobbies Congress. Next week, the union will host its annual legislative conference in Washington.

Denise Majette, Democratic congresswoman and U.S. Senate hopeful, tries to strike a balance. She says the current administration favors defense. And she stresses a more holistic approach to federal spending that would invest money on economic development abroad in hopes of eroding fertile ground for terrorists.

Still, Majette stops short of recommending any specific budget cuts. After all, some of her constituents work at Lockheed-Martin.

The Raptor is just one of a host of dubious defense initiatives. Since Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech in 1983, the U.S. has spent $125 billion on systems that would defend the nation against nuclear missiles. In September, two months before Election Day, a missile defense system should be in place in Alaska and California. But, just last month, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, flagged ballistic missile defense as a problem project.

“[Bush] will say, ‘Look — we’re protecting the United States from missile attack,’” says Victoria Samson, a senior policy associate with the Center for Defense Information in Washington. “Never mind the fact that it doesn’t work.”

In eight tests of the system against incoming missiles, only five have been successful, and that’s with information being fed to the system about where the missile will come from — something a terrorist or belligerent nation won’t likely provide.

“What they’re deploying this year is an initial defense with operational capability, which means nothing really,” Samson says. “They don’t have plans to ever operationally test the program. It’s important because, by law, a weapons program is supposed to go through operational testing before it goes into high rates of production.”

So the West Coast will be equipped with a missile shield that probably won’t work. Yet, this year, it will cost taxpayers $9 billion.

If you want to hear serious talk about defense spending, you often have to seek out third party candidates. They have less to lose.

“It’s the sort of thing that you can defend, and anybody who dares oppose it is un-American,” says Gary Nolan, a frontrunner for the Libertarian presidential nomination.

To counter that attack, he concludes, you have to make your arguments just as emotional. “There are Americans every day who are trying to feed their families ... and we’re doing what with this money?” Nolan says. “We’re taking their tax dollars to build weapons systems that we don’t need for an enemy that doesn’t exist.”

Nolan’s argument isn’t just rhetoric. Many economists are warning that America is undergoing a fundamental structural shift in its economy as jobs flee the country. Meanwhile, our per capita defense spending outpaces Europe’s by five times. Even our ally in Iraq, the United Kingdom, devotes only 7 percent to 8 percent of its budget to the military. As trade barriers come down and jobs move overseas, the U.S. is less equipped to retrain or re-educate its workforce. And, economists fear, our global competitiveness will suffer.

“It’s going to come back to haunt us,” Ravi Kalakota, CEO of E-Business Strategies and author of Offshore Outsourcing, said at a recent forum on globalization at Georgia Tech. “We’re investing in government and not investing in the future sufficiently.”

So, is the sky falling? That depends on whether you had one of those jobs that were shipped overseas and have to count on little help from a government ill-prepared to deal with a changing economy.

It comes back to Eisenhower’s tradeoffs. Defense spending increased from 17.3 percent of the federal budget in fiscal 2002 to 19.6 percent this year. It’s projected to move slightly lower next fiscal year — to 18.8 percent — but, again, that doesn’t count Iraq or Afghanistan. Combine defense spending with the tax cuts and you’ve got a government that doesn’t have the resources the European Union or Asian nations have to deal with a rapidly changing job market.

History seems to warn against America’s formula. Seventeen years ago in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Yale scholar Paul Kennedy tied war and defense spending to the crumbling of empires. His examples were of nations that exploit the resources of the lands it conquers, something the U.S. purports not to do.

“If ... too large a proportion of the state’s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term. In the same way, if a state overextends itself strategically — by, say, the conquest of extensive territories or the waging of costly wars — it runs the risk that the potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expense of it all.”

Isn’t it time some of our leaders mentioned this?