F-35 story shows why it's so hard to cut a federal program

James RosenMcClatchy Washington Bureau,Rob HotakainenMcClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- For all its high-tech stealth and record price tag, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter embodies the droll military motto, "Hurry up and wait."

Conceived in the heady post-Cold War 1990s, the futuristic fifth-generation jet fighter was to be a technological marvel built in a rush and paid for with "peace dividend" dollars.

But now with the economic crash, the fighter is billions over budget and years behind schedule.

Here's part of the problem: axing the F-35 would eliminate tens of thousands of jobs in 47 states. Few members of Congress are willing to go along.

Here's another part: The jet fighter is needed to replace aging U.S. military planes, but -- already the most costly weapons system ever, at $385 billion and rising -- it might be more expensive than the nation can afford.

Despite criticism from defense secretaries, government investigators and powerful senators, the Pentagon still wants the Joint Strike Fighter -- but the Defense Department might want more plane than it needs.

"A lot of times, the Pentagon just wants to sexy these things up and make them do wow stuff when wow is not required," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told McClatchy.

In the current budget crisis, with the Pentagon facing $1 trillion in possible cuts, the F-35's high price tag makes it a prime target. But thanks in part to campaign contributions from its main contractors and their jobs spread across the country, the fighter plane has its own congressional caucus of 48 lawmakers dedicated to saving it at all costs.

When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced Jan. 20 that he wouldn't kill the F-35 program outright, there were sighs of relief across the country for subcontractors and parts suppliers that the jet's main manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has promised will provide 127,000 jobs in 47 states.

Think of the F-35 as the military's version of Medicare: There are huge potential spending cuts, but also powerful constituencies demanding the plane.

The struggle over the Joint Strike Fighter reflects the broader challenge that lawmakers and President Barack Obama face: The biggest budget savings come from large government programs that are popular and, in some cases, needed.

Rep. Norm Dicks, a Washington state Democrat, calls the F-35 jet "the big enchilada," the most advanced stealth aircraft in the world and a great investment in U.S. national security. For Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Joint Strike Fighter is a scandal and a tragedy, beset by delays and huge cost overruns.

Evading radar systems at supersonic speeds, the sleek aircraft would be the first to serve three of the main U.S. military services -- the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps -- each of which has always had its own special plane.

Panetta's clemency for this futuristic fighter is hardly a new lease on life.

In releasing the Pentagon's budget priorities this month, Panetta restated the Defense Department's commitment to the troubled Joint Strike Fighter while delivering an endorsement that felt more like kissing a second cousin.

"In this budget, we have slowed procurement to complete more testing and allow for development changes before buying in significant quantities," he said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Cater provided a blunter assessment.

"The Joint Strike Fighter is not ready to go into full-rate production," he told PBS late Thursday.

It was the third slowdown in as many years for the beleaguered program.

Now many of the 6,000 workers at Lockheed Martin's F-35 final assembly plant outside Fort Worth, Texas, will have time on their hands. The state-of-the-art factory, which had expected to be churning out 100 of the jet fighters annually, will be lucky to make 30 this year.

The new slowdown means that most of the jobs Lockheed Martin promised haven't materialized yet in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois and other states that need them in a slow economy.

Most of all, it means that the Pentagon may fall well short of its initial pledge to buy 2,443 of the F-35s; that a dozen allied and other foreign countries eager to buy the plane could end up, combined, owning more of the aircraft than the United States does.

McClatchy Newspapers