Actually, this posting is about the F-35 fighter. But the headline is correct -- the nation's military services really are going to spend more than $25 billion on music bands in the coming years.
In fact, if you add inflation and indirect costs like retirement benefits, the "then-year" cost of military bands is more like $50 billion.
But here's the catch: I'm talking about the cumulative cost for military bands between now and the year 2065.
Ridiculous, right? By the time we get to 2065, the bands will probably be unmanned (robotic) anyway. But that hasn't stopped various news organizations from reporting that the after-inflation "lifecycle cost" of the F-35 joint strike fighter through 2065 has risen above $1 trillion.
The story generated a lot of buzz, mainly because few of the reporters who cover the Pentagon know anything about economics. If they did, they'd realize that in the 1970s you could buy a new Mustang convertible for less than $5,000 and half a century is a very long time in economic terms.
I imagine a few grizzled editors actually did know this, but they just couldn't resist attaching a trillion-dollar price tag to the F-35 because it was a surefire way of attracting readers. So how come they never apply the same bogus methodology to other government expenditures -- like music bands?
Walter Pincus reported in the Washington Post on Sept. 6, 2010, that the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines were spending around $500 million annually on bands.
Multiply that number by 50 years and then add in a modest inflation factor -- say 2.5% per year, compounded -- and half a century later you're talking real money, as the late Sen. Everett Dirkson might have put it. Many tens of billions of dollars, it turns out.
Stakes in the F-35 Debate Are Clearer
It's hard to measure the benefit of spending so much money on music, but the stakes in the F-35 debate are a bit clearer.
If the joint force doesn't field a more survivable fighter sometime soon, we can forget about operating our aircraft over places like Iran and North Korea in the future. And the fact that no U.S. soldier has been killed by an enemy aircraft since the Korean War will be a thing of the past.
Air superiority is one of those things that is hard to fully appreciate until you've lost it, and then you really, really miss it. So maybe we should set aside all the imaginative ways that pundits dream up to try to discredit a plane that actually won't cost much more to own than current fighters, and just do what we need to do to stay on top.
Incidentally, did I mention that the "then-year" cost of illegal drugs in the U.S. through 2065 is likely to be around $20 trillion?
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit Lexington Institute and chief executive officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was deputy director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He also has taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.