Too big to fail: With millions invested, the F-35 is here to stay

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Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) helped found the House Joint Strike Fighter Caucus and has received thousands from Lockheed Martin. (LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1997, Lockheed Martin was selected to compete to design and build what would become the F-35 Lightning II. Over that course of time, this fighter jet program has become one of the most expensive in American history and has faced a variety of serious technical and functional challenges. The plane was finally deemed ready for combat in 2018, despite remaining concerns about the plane’s ability to fly and fight.

Even with all the controversy regarding the plane, bipartisan members of Congress this week asked their colleagues to adjust President Trump’s 2020 budget request to include more F-35s. As Lockheed has invested millions in congressional candidates and created jobs in nearly every U.S. state, the political support of the project remains strong.  

The House members that wrote the letter asking for more F-35s are part of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus. The group, led by Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Martha Roby (R-Ala.), Marc Veasey (D-Texas) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio), was formed in 2011 by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) and former Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wa.). All five of the current caucus members mentioned above received the maximum in PAC contributions from Lockheed Martin in the 2018 cycle. In a press release announcing the caucus’ formation, Granger and Dicks called the fighter plane program “an absolute necessity,” citing the number of jobs it would support.

Initially, the planes were supposed to cost $38 million each, however even though it often dramatically underperforms each individual plane costs the U.S. government an average of $158.4 million. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, while Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems contributed parts.

A recent report by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) laid out the litany of problems facing the aircraft. Some of the issues include malfunctioning combat computer systems, cyber vulnerabilities which could allow hackers to access the planes’ network, problems with the accuracy of the planes’ guns and a tendency to develop cracks which require numerous repairs.

Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps captain and military fellow at POGO and author of the report, said that even with all the program’s problems it will continue on.

“The military industrial congressional complex has perfected its methods for ensuring programs of this kind can endure despite disappointing performance in almost every objective military measure,” he said.

Likely part of the reason the program holds so much political support is because of its wide economic reach. Lockheed Martin says the F-35 directly and indirectly provides for 194,000 jobs across 46 states and Puerto Rico.   

Since the 1990 cycle, Lockheed employees and the company’s PAC have contributed almost a combined $39.7 million. The 2018 cycle saw the most contributed by affiliates in a midterm with almost $4.7 million.  

Granger was the top recipient of money from Lockheed’s PAC and employees in 2018 with $131,940, more than double the next closest recipient. Granger, the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, received $549,990, mostly from Lockheed employees, over the course of her career making it her top all-time donor.

Granger has been a member of the Appropriations Committee since 1999 and at different points served as Vice Chair and Chair of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee. One of the F-35 assembly plants is in Granger’s district and she has been described as a “champion” of the program.  

The Senate’s top recipient of Lockheed Martin contributions was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is a member of three committees that would be of interest to the organization — Appropriations, Budget and Foreign Relations. Graham received $58,700 from them in the 2018 cycle and has gotten $109,625 from employees and the PAC throughout his career.

According to the company’s website, the F-35 project is tied to 530 jobs in South Carolina and has an economic impact of $34.3 million in the state.

Lockheed is also a significant contributor to some of the House members behind the recent letter requesting more F-35s in the budget proposal. Turner received $98,000, mostly PAC money, in his career making Lockheed his second-biggest all-time contributor. Veasy received $46,950, also mostly from Lockheed’s PAC, during his career making the company his third-biggest all-time donor.

Granger and Veasy, one of the signers of the letter asking for more F-35s, represent districts in Texas, a state where Lockheed’s F-35 program has a massive economic impact. The program provides 47,080 direct and indirect jobs in Texas and another 4,080 jobs in Turner’s home state of Ohio.

Besides campaign contributions, Lockheed Martin is a strong lobbying force. In 2018, it spent $13.2 million on lobbying and in 2017 dropped almost $14.5 million. The company is well-connected on Capitol Hill — in 2018 it employed 54 total revolving door members, including 3 former members of Congress.  

Even with the staunch political support and the widespread economic impacts of the program, Grazier described the program as “an albatross around the neck of the services for many years.”

“Even if the engineers can eventually complete the design and make it function the way we have been promised it would, the program comes with a high cost of ownership,” he said. “This is by design as it ensures Lockheed Martin receives lucrative, sole-source sustainment contracts for as long as the aircraft flies.”

He also laid out another unforeseen consequence of the program’s struggles — the possibility of pilots leaving the service as there will be “a difficult time keeping the aircraft flying.” And with fewer aircraft in the air, top pilots could get frustrated and leave the service, Grazier warned.

Grazier said that one possible solution would be for Congress to “not increase production until the design can be proven through operational testing.” But there are more dramatic steps they could take too.

“The best thing would be to halt production until the entire developmental process is completed to include the ‘Block 4’ changes. The program office is planning on buying hundreds of more F-35s while the design is changed in a rather dramatic way,” he said. “That means all the aircraft acquired before that is completed will need to go through an expensive retrofit process to incorporate all the fixes that have yet to be discovered.”

Lockheed Martin did not return a request for comment.

Karl Evers-Hillstrom contributed to this report.

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