Back in the height of World War II, the pride of the Royal Air Force was the Supermarine Spitfire - arguably the greatest fighter aircraft of its generation.
This was the plane that helped win the Battle of Britain (even though the Hawker Hurricane really did the bulk of the work.) Later, in service for both American and British squadrons, the Spitfire cut down swathes of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs in Europe, North Africa and beyond.
And the cost of this breathtaking miracle of aviation? Each plane was produced in Britain for around $20,000 - equivalent to the cost of the average house back then (so let's say $250,000.)
Flash forward sixty-odd years, to the Defense Department in the United States.
Here they're wrapping up development of the new fighter aircraft slated to replace a large part of the US warplane fleet - the Lockheed Martin F-35.
Boasting a host of innovative developments, including a radar signature smaller than a golf ball, the F-35 is intended to be a 'jack of all trades' - able to perform ground attack, reconnaissance, and air defense missions (with stealth capability.)
Given just how many tasks this remarkable plane is capable of, you might think it would be a money saver. After all - it's replacing a host of other aircraft (the F-16 fighter, A-10 ground-attack aircraft, multirole F/A 18 and the Harrier Jump Jet.) That means a single airframe, universal spare parts and just a single plane for pilots and mechanics to learn about.
Yet instead, the F-35 has the awkward distinction of being the most expensive defense program ever conceived. With a total cost of $325 billion, development and production of the F-35 dwarfs the building of aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons and military satellites. In fact, depending on the variant of the F-35, the individual cost for each plan can run as high as $200 million.
$200 million - for a single plane!
Or, to put it another way, you could purchase a thousand 1945-era 'state of the art' fighter planes for a single one of today's 'state of the art' fighter planes.
Now, I know that's not a fair comparison. The Supermarine Spitfire was 'state of the art' during a period in which a three-bladed propeller was considered 'cutting edge.' The F-35 has vertical take-off capability, a helmet-mounted virtual display system and the ability to obliterate a target before it's even within visual range.
But still... $200 million? Each?
To my mind, the development of the F-35 embodies everything that's wrong about America's obsession with military spending - and a budget larger than the combined defense budget of every other nation on Earth. When you look at the bottom line for production of the F-35, you realize just how corrupt, inept and inefficient the whole process has become.
The problem is that America's military production companies - like Lockheed Martin, who are producing the F-35 - are so in bed with the government that they are chowing down on tax-payer's money like hogs at a trough - and giving us very little of value back.
Lobbyists and paid-off congressmen rub shoulders with an entrenched old-boy network of soldiers, sailors and airmen. The result is a swathe of legislative 'yes men' who are willing to approve bloated military spending orders with relative impunity.
When it comes to the F-35, for example, did you know that the government is paying billions for the development and production of a 'spare' engine?
If the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine that they developed for the F-35 doesn't live up to expectations (which it already has done) the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 will be there to be used as an alternative - even though the F136 has a tendency to burst into flames that hasn't been solved yet, and the US Navy has already stated that they have no intention of using F-35s fitted with the GE/RR engine because they "lack the space on aircraft carriers to support two different engines."
So essentially, General Electric is raking in billions of dollars of taxpayer's money for the sake of developing an engine that doesn't work and will most likely never be used. Here we are, with the Republicans and Tea Party complaining about Obama's overspending, while the worst of it is happening in our own back yard.
My next criticism is a harsh one - that the F-35 simply isn't that good.
Using the Spitfire comparison again... The Supermarine Spitfire was, quite frankly, the greatest fighter aircraft of its time. It served throughout the world in a variety of different roles - right through until the 1950s.
During World War 2 there was simply no fighter aircraft to equal it - but the Spitfire also served on aircraft carriers (the Seafire) and as a ground attack aircraft. Obviously it suited some roles better than others, but was exemplary in all of them.
The F-35, by comparison, is often criticized as being the perfect example of why one machine shouldn't be built to do multiple things - because it never does any of them as well as something designed purely for that purpose.
In air combat, for example, the F-35 carries only two air-to-air missiles (something which caused Major Richard Koch, chief of USAF Air Combat Command’s advanced air dominance branch, to "wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of.")
Former RAND author John Stillion wrote that the F-35 "“can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.” US defense specialist Winslow T. Wheeler called the F-35 "heavy and sluggish." In simulated war games against the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter, the F-35 came off worse.
It was equally mediocre when it came to other roles the common airframe would be adapted for - Winslow T. Wheeler complained that it carried a "pitifully small load for all that money." He even argued that modern air forces would be better maintaining separate fleets of F-16 fighters and F/A 18 multirole fighters than replacing both with the single airframe F-35.
So what's my point?
Simply that if we're ever going to rein in our federal spending, we need to look seriously at areas of the budget that often get overlooked - like the way the military go about buying their new toys. It's funny how often so-called 'tea party patriots' will demand a free market solution for health care or retirement savings, but will blithely sign off on no-bid contracts for military equipment - which end up wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money.
And even if you don't want to cut that money from the military budget, it's difficult to argue that it couldn't be better spent. A colleague of mine is watching her son get sent to Afghanistan this month - and tells me that parents have had to save up to give their kids walkie-talkies and flak jackets, since the US Military 'doesn't have the budget' to supply even the most essential equipment to their troops in the field.
And it occurs to me that no matter how deep your nuclear submarines go, how far your bombers can fly or how immense your aircraft carriers are - the real heart of a nation's military are the men and women who bravely serve in it.
It seems much of the money wasted on the F-35 'project' could have been better spent on them.