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Afghanistan, the F-35, and the Pentagon: An Opportunity for Conservatives to Rein in the Waste



By Robert Kuykendall


With America’s longest war apparently – and finally – coming to an end, the Biden administrations faces critical decisions when it comes to the transition out of Afghanistan. Of particular importance, the lives and welfare of thousands of Afghan translators and their families depend on being granted safe passage to the United States. Whatever one may feel about the reasons for American military intervention in that part of the world, it is clear that victory has become increasingly difficult to define; especially when we consider the conflict has already cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.


However, the transition from Afghanistan will likely do little to curb the Pentagon’s addiction to the mismanagement of tax dollars – from everyday inefficiencies to the “sunk cost” fallacy that continues to defend the development of the F-35 fighter plane.


Using your money to make other people rich


Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 program launched coincidentally the same year that America entered Afghanistan. Yet, after nearly two decades and a $1.7 trillion “life cycle” price tagthe full-rate production decision still awaits testing that is expected to be complete next year.


The company has defended the project by claiming it provides “more than 254,000 high-paying, high-quality jobs to American workers” and supports “1,000 small business suppliers…in 45 states and Puerto Rico.” But putting taxpayer money in defense contractors’ pockets to churn out a sub-standard, dangerous plane in many ways starts to resemble a ponzi scheme. Even the same politicians who passed the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan “stimulus” are signaling frustration with the rising costs that include $300 million in defective and missing parts, and economies of scale that are so bad that the Pentagon launched an investigation.


We would all love a “high-paying” job that isn’t held accountable to specific goals and metrics.


An embarrassment to drunken sailors – throwing away your tax dollars


By philosophical nature, conservatives rightly support spending practices that ensure a robust defense system and hold an affinity for the Pentagon as the symbolic head of a truly constitutional federal agency. However, conservatives also frequently hesitate to take a critical stance on the Pentagon’s spending culture and shy away from demanding the necessary austerity.


In 2016, for example, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon buried $125 billion in wasted taxpayer money over five years. The late Senator John McCain’s former communications director Rachel Hoff justified the 4% estimated waste by comparing it to the much larger rate of wasted funds in other, large programs like Medicaid and Medicare – but she also attempted to minimalize the Pentagon’s waste to the higher rate seen in the school lunch program. The problem? The school lunch program has a total budget smaller than the annual waste at the Pentagon.


Furthermore, the Post’s article, based upon a consultancy’s report of back-office inefficiencies, identifies only a fraction of the waste the Pentagon commandeers from your wallet. From a 2016 analysis:


The [spending] problems are severe. Over the years, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on cancelled programs and wasted in inefficiencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Contractor issues in Afghanistan garnered significant attention from hawk Senator Kelly Ayotte in January and the press in March, as did a report that the Army lied to Congress about cutting a program.


For the investment America has made in Afghanistan, we will be leaving with little to show for it. And that is not a slight at the brave men and women who have made heavy sacrifices, nor is it an indictment of the their combat leaders. Instead, the lesson from Afghanistan is the clear reminder that victory becomes harder to win as time drags on and the mission goals blur. The fault lies with the leadership that has failed to define victory and in many cases misled the American public as reported by the Washington Post in 2019.


We don’t need a bigger Pentagon – we need a smarter one


Every proponent of government programs is fond of responsible spending practices, as long as their pet program continues to receive taxpayer dollars. However, few go past the rhetoric and propose specific measures for accountability, and fewer calls for accountability become tangible, cost-saving results. Every defender of every government program always says it’s good to spend taxpayer dollars better. The departure from Afghanistan gives Republicans and conservatives a prime opportunity to put the Pentagon under the same microscope that we use for our favorite targets when it comes to excessive waste and spending, such as Medicaid, Medicare, and – especially – corporate welfare.


Robert Kuykendall is a seasoned campaign veteran and former non-profit executive. Now a political consultant, Kuykendall is based in Nashville, Tennessee.