Lock­heed pro­gram gen­er­ates thou­sands of jobs in 45 states

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Richard Lardner

washington» Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump is vow­ing to cor­ral the “out of con­trol” cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and Democrats, aware of the tens of thou­sands of jobs the air­craft gen­er­ates in 45 states, will be wary of any plans by Trump to cut the pro­gram.

A Mon­day morn­ing tweet from Trump tar­get­ing the F-35 doesn’t ex­plain ex­actly how he’ll save bil­lions of dol­lars in mil­i­tary pur­chases while also hon­or­ing a cam­paign vow to re­build the armed forces. Once Trump is in of­fice, he can pro­pose deep cuts to the F-35 or even elect to can­cel the pro­gram al­to­gether. But Congress, not the pres­i­dent, con­trols the gov­ern­ment’s purse strings and makes the fi­nal de­ci­sions about the bud­get.

Built by de­fense gi­ant Lock­heed Martin, the nearly $400 bil­lion price tag for the F-35 makes the pro­gram the Pen­tagon’s most ex­pen­sive weapons ac­qui­si­tion ever. De­spite the huge cost, the pro­gram has strong bi­par­ti­san sup­port in Congress, where law­mak­ers view the air­craft as es­sen­tial to na­tional se­cu­rity.

Af­ter Trump’s tweet, Lock­heed Martin’s shares tum­bled, wip­ing out nearly $2 bil­lion of the com­pany’s mar­ket value. The F-35 pro­gram made up 20 per­cent of Lock­heed’s to­tal 2015 rev­enue of $46.1 bil­lion. U.S. gov­ern­ment or­ders made up 78 per­cent of its rev­enue last year.

“Who­ever has this air­plane will have the most ad­vanced air force in the world. That’s why we’re build­ing the F35. That’s why it’s im­por­tant to not only the U.S., our part­ners and our part­ners like the Is­raeli Air Force to have this air­plane,” said Jeff Babione, gen­eral man­ager of the F-35 pro­gram, at a base in Is­rael.

Is­rael and sev­eral other U.S. al­lies are also buy­ing the F-35, ex­pand­ing the pro­gram’s in­ter­na­tional foot­print. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter vis­ited Is­rael on Mon­day as Tel Aviv re­ceived the first two nextgen­er­a­tion F-35 fighter jets that will help pre­serve the coun­try’s mil­i­tary edge in the volatile Mideast.

The F-35, which uses stealth tech­nol­ogy to avoid be­ing de­tected by radar, is be­ing built in dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions to be used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The Navy’s ver­sion, for ex­am­ple, is de­signed to take off and land on an air­craft car­rier.

Cur­rent plans call for the United States to buy nearly 2,500 F-35s. Close to $13 bil­lion will be needed an­nu­ally be­tween 2016 and 2038 to hit that pro­cure­ment num­ber, ac­cord­ing to the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice.

While the F-35 had mas­sive bud­get over­runs early on, the cost has sta­bi­lized and even dropped a bit fol­low­ing tough ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Pen­tagon and Lock­heed Martin, ac­cord­ing to Todd Har­ri­son, a de­fense bud­get ex­pert at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

“Trump is un­likely to squeeze more blood out of this rock,” Har­ri­son said.

Lock­heed said that it has worked to lower the price of the F-35 by 60 per­cent and ex­pected the air­craft to cost $85 mil­lion each in 2019 and 2020. But the com­pany’s es­ti­mate ap­pears to omit the price of the en­gine and the cost of de­vel­op­ment. When those el­e­ments are added in, the cost per F-35 in cur­rent-year dol­lars is closer to $138 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to Har­ri­son.

Com­pa­nies from 45 states are in­volved in the F-35’s pro­duc­tion, with Texas, Ge­or­gia, Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona and Florida play­ing the lead­ing roles in test­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing the jet fighter. The com­pany is teamed with more than 1,250 do­mes­tic sup­pli­ers to pro­duce thou­sands of com­po­nents rang­ing from highly so­phis­ti­cated radar sen­sors to parts of the air­craft’s fuse­lage, ac­cord­ing to Lock­heed Martin.

Over­all, the F-35 pro­gram is re­spon­si­ble for more than 146,000 U.S. jobs, the com­pany said.

The Lock­heed Martin plant where the F-35 is be­ing built is lo­cated in Texas Repub­li­can Rep. Kay Granger’s district. She’s vice chair of the de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee. Rep. Mac Thorn­berry, the Repub­li­can chair­man of the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, rep­re­sents the district next door to Granger’s.

In a state­ment Mon­day, Granger hailed the F-35 de­liv­ery to Is­rael, call­ing the air­craft “what we need to keep our two coun­tries safe in these dan­ger­ous times.”

Thorn­berry’s com­mit­tee has sup­ported buy­ing more F-35s than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had asked for in its bud­get re­quest. The F-35 will re­place an ag­ing in­ven­tory of U.S. air­craft that many law­mak­ers be­lieve are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly un­safe to fly.

Claude Chafin, a com­mit­tee spokesman, said Thorn­berry “shares the pres­i­dent-elect’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to have the Pen­tagon get weapons in the hands of our troops faster, while be­ing bet­ter stew­ards of the tax­payer dol­lar.”

The tweet on the F-35 marks the sec­ond time in a week Trump has blasted U.S. air­craft spend­ing. Last week, he tweeted that costs to build new pres­i­den­tial planes by Boe­ing Corp. were “out of con­trol” and ended the tweet with “Can­cel or­der!”

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press file

An F-35 jet ar­rives at its new op­er­a­tional base at Hill Air Force Base just south of Og­den, Utah, in Septem­ber 2015.

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