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History’s Most Wasteful Military Spending

With World War 2, the Cold War and 9/11 in it’s rearview mirror, it’s no surprise that the USA boasts the largest defence budget in the world. For the 2019 fiscal year, it spent over 700 billion dollars on defence – more than the next 10 countries combined, which included China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. This budget doesn’t even cover the whole of the US’s actual spending on national security as other departments are also involved, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and some non-military elements for the Intelligence Communities. These add tens of billions to the final tally. While not everything on this list comes from the US, they are the biggest players in the game and so have also probably wasted as much money as at least the next 10 countries combined as well. Here are a few of the biggest, worst conceived or just plain weird examples of wasted military spending. 

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

OK, let’s get this one out of the way first. By far the biggest sinkhole in military spending terms is the F-35 series of planes. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning 2, to give it its full name, was and still is supposed to be the future of combat and stealth avionics. There are 3 variants of the F-35 but for the purposes of this video, I’ll be referring to the project as a whole. In the mid 1990s, the Joint Strike Fighter programme (JSF) was set up to replace a whole host of different aircraft with one brand that could do it all – short take-off and vertical landing, carry and deploy a myriad of weapons and also use the highest-spec stealth technology. This turned into the F-35 and had many countries putting in orders to phase out their ageing aircraft with the newest and shiniest model. While the USA is the majority investor, several other countries also fund the program, including the UK, Italy and the Netherlands. Lockheed Martin won the contract in 2001 to manufacture the F-35 and, putting most of its aeronautical eggs in one basket, the US planned to buy over 2400 of them over the course of the next 20 years or so. As this was always intended to be an ongoing project with the base F-35 expected to be continually upgraded and improved up until the year 2070, surely it’s not that surprising that the project’s costs are quite high? Well, there’s high and then there’s high. Investors are tied into a program that was originally slated to cost $406 billion for the aircraft plus operating costs until 2070, totalling $1.6 trillion over its lifetime, a.k.a. the most expensive weapons system of all time. 

Vertical landing mechanism of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

The whole problem of conceiving something with such a long life expectancy is that things get outdated pretty quickly. By 2004, a mere 3 years after production started, the planes had already been redesigned to become lighter, resulting in a year and a half of delays and several billion dollars of extra costs. By 2009, the project was almost 3 years behind schedule after problems with software, cracking in the airframes and, ironically, the fuel tanks being vulnerable to lightning strikes. Also, the 3 variants of the F-35 had only about a quarter of their parts in common making repairs and updates much less efficient than the original proposal which stated that around 70% of their components would be shared. Logistically this is also a nightmare as 1400 subcontractors are involved in the project, further increasing the likelihood of delays and overspending. 

It seems as though every upgrade to the F-35 has gone over budget and left it further behind schedule, with the latest software update alone nearing $2 billion over its original estimate. 

The US Department of Defense was expecting to see combat-ready planes by 2010 but it wasn’t until 2018 that they were flown in a combat situation for the first time and that was by Israel. Thanks to some recent bulk purchases, F-35s are currently retailing for under $80 million per unit which actually isn’t bad for a stealth plane. It’s the operating costs that get you though, with the F-35 costing 2 to 3 times as much to fly per hour as other fighter jets. 

In February 2021, the US Air Force publicly admitted that the F-35 was too expensive and that it was considering replacing it with something a little less pricey. While not the worst aircraft ever, the F-35 Lightning 2s just don’t live up to the hype.

Hitler’s Atlantic Wall

In March 1942, Adolf Hitler issued Directive 40, mandating that coastal defences needed to be set up to stop the Allies from landing on beaches or otherwise invading Germany and its Fortress Europe. This became the Atlantic Wall project, to stretch from the top of Norway to France’s border with Spain. Yes, over 2000 miles (3200 km) of extra fortifications to include gun batteries, bomb-proof bunkers, actual walls and fences. And Hitler wanted this completed by the following May. Germans may be known for their efficiency but even they weren’t up to this challenge. The wall took over 2 years to complete, used over 17 million cubic metres of concrete and enough steel to have built 20,000 tanks. Even with the majority of the million workers being low paid or not paid at all, the project still cost the Fuhrer 3.7 billion deutschmarks which is the equivalent of over $200 billion dollars today. 

Although Nazi propaganda gave the impression that the Atlantic wall was unassailable, in truth the dwindling resources, sabotage by co-opted foreign workers and sheer scale of the project meant that the wall was far from impregnable. 

But was it money well spent? Rommel didn’t think so, beefing up the protection of French beaches by littering them with mines and sinking other hidden explosives to be covered by the high tide. As we all know, it was all for naught in the end as the Allies who stormed the beaches in the Normandy landings on the 6th of June 1944 managed to break through the German defence wall on the very first day. 

Project Nike

After dropping atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, the US started to think seriously about defending itself from a similar attack. At the time, the only way of bombing another country was to fly the bombs over and drop them from the plane. This would require a defence system capable of reaching and hitting potentially multiple fast-moving targets before they had a chance to drop their payloads. Enter Project Nike which, to summarize, was a plan to shoot down planes carrying nuclear bombs with missiles using nuclear warheads…over mainland America. 

Project Nike, one of most wasteful military spending

After a successful test in 1951, defence areas to protect major sites were set up and by 1960 there were more than 250 Nike stations all over the US.

The first iteration of the Nike missiles, the Nike Ajax, didn’t use nuclear explosives but the missiles were not efficient, quick to launch or particularly stable. In 1955 one was launched accidentally but exploded in the atmosphere without causing any damage. In 1958, however, one of the Ajax missiles in New Jersey exploded on its pad, killing 10 people. These added to the reasons why the Ajax was superseded by the nuclear warhead-carrying Nike Hercules missiles at the end of the 1950s. The Hercules missiles had a longer range and could carry atomic warheads that were more powerful than Hiroshima’s “Little Boy” bomb. 

Unfortunately for the US, however, the Soviet Union was turning up the technological heat and launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. As well as kick-starting the Space Race, it also became clear that missiles could now potentially be launched without being flown in on easy-to-hit aircraft. With the Hercules already more or less obsolete, the US Army started a new project, Nike Zeus, with the ultimate aim of shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). While billions were pumped into this new phase, it soon became clear that it was not financially viable to sustain it and the whole Nike Zeus project was shelved in 1963.

So how many of the missiles in this $20 billion project did the US end up deploying to defend itself? Zero of course, it was called the Cold War for a reason. 

JLENS Aerostats

JLENS Blimps – surveillance balloon by Bill Dickinson is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND

Have you heard of the US’s missile detecting blimps or “aerostats” that can stay aloft for a month at a time and blanket the country in a net of security? What? You’ve never heard of the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System thankfully known as JLENS? No? That’s because the proposed project was effectively scrapped in 2017, leaving the US $2.6 billion dollars lighter with practically nothing to show for it. 

In theory, having large tethered blimps 10,000 feet (3000 metres) in the air, able to survey the ground and airspace for 340 miles (550km) in any direction and directly linked to military defence systems sounds like a pretty good idea. They would be cheaper than other aerial systems and provide a greater coverage range than ground systems. They would also be mobile and easy to set up anywhere. In practice…not so much. 

In 1998, Raytheon was given the contract to manufacture a prototype with an eye to trialling it for 3 years before full deployment. The initial contract was in the region of $290 million. After 9/11, the US government pulled out all the stops on homeland defence and in 2005, put in an order for 28 blimps with a bump of an extra $1.3 billion to Raytheon. 

It soon became apparent, however, that the JLENS system had issues. The blimps had to operate in pairs, each one with a different radar system. If one wasn’t operational, the system was useless. Raytheon boasted about the 30 day constant surveillance capability but in testing this never happened, with the blimps rarely able to stay aloft more than a few days or even hours in a row.

During tests, the Pentagon testing team noted that the blimps were not able to reliably tell the difference between enemy and friendly targets and that their overall reliability was “poor”. 

The aerostats couldn’t just bob around doing their own thing either, they needed a crew to keep an eye on them 24/7 and a crew of over 100 people per pair of blimps at that. This obviously had serious implications for the maneuverability and set up in battle zones and also required a lot of specialized knowledge that only the Raytheon employees had. 

To add insult to the financial injury, in 2010, a commercial blimp became untethered during strong winds and crashed into an early JLENS aerostat, completely destroying the prototype which had cost an estimated $180 million to build. And in 2015, a blimp somehow broke free from the Maryland testing ground and floated about 100 miles to Pennsylvania where its dragging tether, which was 6700 ft (2km) long, took out power lines as it went. 

There were also problems integrating the blimps’ software with national defence systems, so it was no surprise that 19 years and $2.6 billion later, the funding for the program was slashed in the 2017 budget and what was left of the blimps was put away, possibly to be used again in the future…but probably not. 

(Dis)honourable Mentions

You can’t talk about wasteful spending without including a couple of totally weird examples. In 2015, an Air Force base in Alaska spent over $1500 on some promotional lipbalms which had “consent, ask, comunicate” on the side to remind you to, you know, not sexually assault someone. While being pretty gimmicky and pointless on their own, it turned out that the lipbalms contained hemp oil which is a banned substance in the military and the tubes had to be destroyed. 

Because the US military pays for the healthcare of active duty personnel and veterans, it means that it ends up paying for a lot of Viagra. In 2014 it dropped over $41 million on the little blue pill with other name brands bringing the total up to over $84 million. I could make jokes about standing to attention or active members here but that would be puerile so I choose not to.

Lastly, an effective camouflage pattern is essential on a soldier’s uniform so it was good thinking for the US Army when it came up with the Universal Camouflage Pattern in 2004. As the name suggests, the pattern was supposed to work in any sort of environment but it tested very poorly with soldiers, especially those in Afghanistan and the pattern was phased out and discontinued ten years later. It was so unpopular, in fact, that private contractors were being paid to supply replacement uniforms while new patterns were being developed. This would all have been embarrassing enough had it not also cost around $5 billion for this camouflage uniform to blend back into the history books. 

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