The Biggest Military Wastes of Money

The staggering amount of money available to the US Armed Forces has resulted in wasteful military spending on a grand scale and some of the worst military spending in history. As technology changes and improves, new designs in tanks, planes, weapons, and vehicles have to be developed - all of which cost huge amounts. But the military is plagued by bureaucratic inefficiency, redundancy, procurement issues, changing priorities, and a process that simply takes too long.

As a result, the last 30 years are littered with futuristic, pointless military projects that never saw a day of action. Lasers, stealth ships, high-tech tanks and guns, communications systems, even uniforms - all have been developed at massive costs, and done little to nothing to keep the nation or its armed forces safe. The most egregious, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, might top out at $1.5 trillion - more than the GDP of all but 11 countries on earth - and it's never fired a shot.

Rampant military spending isn't a new phenomenon, as numerous European countries during after World War II wasted staggering sums on defenses that provided no defense. But when it comes to wasting money, nobody can beat the US from the Cold War until now. Here are the most egregious examples of military spending gone haywire, from WWII until today.
Photo: 7th Army Training Command / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

  • The Joint Strike Fighter program was meant to produce a fighter that the Air Force, Marines, and Navy could all use - a fast, stealthy plane that could take off from anywhere, land on anything, and deploy almost any weapon. Instead, it became a black hole of technical problems, delays, technology that was obsolete before being deployed, and above all, money. It's been estimated that the F-35 has cost a staggering $1.5 trillion since its inception in 1996. Meanwhile, the plane is plagued by issues, including having trouble landing on aircraft carriers, issues winning dogfights, reliability problems and, ironically, vulnerability to lightning strikes.
  • Hitler's Atlantic Wall - $200 Billion

    Soon after Nazi Germany conquered France, Adolf Hitler ordered the building of fortification all along the Atlantic coast to protect it from Allied landings. Fuehrer Directive 40 called for 15,000 individual emplacements to be manned by over a quarter of a million Germans and foreign conscripts - all in less than a year.

    The cost of the Atlantic Wall was staggering, certainly in lives (much of the work was done by slave labor), but also in material and money. 1.2 millions tons of steel, enough to build 20,000 tanks, was used, along with 17 million cubic meters of concrete. The total cost was the equivalent of $200 billion in today's money, a cost that Germany could barely afford. Famed General Erwin Rommel declared the Wall to be a farce in 1943, and he was right - it was breached in less than a day, with the vast majority of the emplacements either never finished or never used.

  • Strategic Defense Initiative - $100-150 Billion

    Announced just a few weeks after Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" speech, the Strategic Defense Initiative was meant to be a space-based system of lasers and satellites that would shoot down any Russian intercontinental or submarine-launched nuclear missile headed toward the United States.

    What it became was a black hole of theoretical research, pop culture ridicule, political tension, and spent money. A staggering amount of money. Estimates on the cost of SDI research and development start at $100 billion, and run as high as $150 billion. All for a system that was dependent on technology that was never developed past the theoretical stage. Thankfully, some of the money was spent on basic science research, so it wasn't a total waste.
  • One of the most troubled and controversial programs in Air Force history, the B-1 was first developed in the early '70s as a replacement for the aging B-52. It was cancelled in 1977 after four prototypes were made. Then it was revived by President Reagan, and development on it continued to the point where 100 were built, despite numerous problems with the plane's design and operation. The planes didn't see combat in the Gulf War due to engine issues, and didn't drop a bomb in action until 1998. The planes have proved useful, but hugely expensive, at over a quarter of a billion dollars per plane.
  • MX Missile - $25 Billion

    A 1970s nuclear deterrent, the LGM-118 (or MX Missile, as the program was usually called) was a land-based ICBM that could carry up to 10 re-entry vehicles, each armed with a 300-kiloton W87 warhead. It could deliver a devastating strike to the Soviet Union that could essentially win a nuclear war in one blow. The program was cancelled and restarted several times due to issues with housing the missiles, before President Reagan approved their deployment in hardened silos. 

    The program suffered massive delays and cost overruns, and the missiles themselves were hard to maintain and expensive to build. The MX ended up costing over $25 billion to make just 114 missiles. The last were taken out of service in 2003 - and the Cold War they were meant to win lasted just a few years after they were deployed.
  • Project Nike - $20 Billion

    Cold War paranoia over waves of Soviet bombers blasting the US into nuclear oblivion led to a staggering engineering and military project, code-named Nike. It was a plan to build anti-aircraft missile batteries all over the country, concentrating on cities, military targets, and industrial bases. The missiles were placed in batteries of two or three, with corresponding radars, barracks, underground storage bunkers, elevators, and maintenance facilities.

    Nike Ajax Missiles were replaced by Nike Hercules Missiles, which were replaced by Nike Zeus missiles. All the while, the Soviet Union was phasing bombers out, making the missiles useless. Nike was ended in the mid 70s, and no missile was ever fired at an enemy. The cost of the program was enormous, at least $20 billion, and probably much more. Nike sites today mostly sit abandoned, with many of them posing severe environmental hazards.