WASHINGTON – Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, 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 Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a scandal and a tragedy, destined to become the most costly weapons program in history and one beset by delays and huge cost overruns.
As Congress battles over the F-35, thousands of jobs are at stake – including nearly 1,600 in Washington state – and defense contractors are spending big money in an attempt to influence politicians and save the embattled program.
Even in an era of austerity, with the Department of Defense facing hundreds of millions in budget cuts, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has plenty of key supporters, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
Backers of the program won a key victory on Jan. 20 when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta backed off earlier threats to axe the program.
That’s thanks partly to subcontractor jobs spread across virtually every state and the campaign contributions from Lockheed Martin and other big contractors to House members of the newly formed Save the F-35 Caucus.
But even Dicks, the caucus co-chairman and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee, predicts “a slowdown in the ramping up of this program.”
He said the F-35 “has reached a critical stage in its development” and that it will be important in coming years to keep the jet project on schedule, despite its early problems.
“Everybody would like to see a low-cost, no-problem development,” Dicks said in an interview. “But there’s never been one. We have to do this: The Marine Corps needs stealth, the Air Force needs stealth, and the Navy needs stealth. I think it’s going to turn out to be a good airplane. We’ve got to work hard to get the fixes.”
In a speech on the Senate floor last month, McCain said the jets, originally expected to cost $69 million each, will come with a price tag of $156 million each, including the costs of research, development and testing.
“We are saddled with a program that has little to show for itself after 10 years and $56 billion in taxpayer investment,” McCain said.
George Behan, Dicks’ chief of staff, said that according to the Department of Defense’s official count, there are 117 planes that have been produced, in production or ordered. Of those, 42 are “out the door,” Behan said.
The F-35 is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a giant in the defense industry, based in Bethesda, Md. Calling the F-35 “a game changer for America,” Lockheed estimates that it will provide more than 260,000 jobs when the jet reaches full-scale production.
Already, the company boasts that it uses more than 1,300 small businesses and manufacturers around the country, producing more than 127,000 jobs in 47 states.
But Gary Hentz, director of tactical aviation programs for Lockheed Martin, said the number might be much higher because of the ripple effect.
“I’ve talked to some suppliers that have over 10 suppliers themselves,” he said.
In November, Dicks and Republican Rep. Kay Granger, launched the bipartisan 48-member F-35 caucus, saying the program is “an absolute necessity” in a time of budget cuts, especially with countries such as China and Russia testing their next-generation fighters.
Granger, the chairwoman of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, represents Texas, which has more F-35-related jobs than any other state – more than 41,000. She said in a statement at the time that the caucus will make sure that members of Congress “have the very best information possible so we can all make the best decisions possible.”
Here in Washington state, the F-35 produces 1,590 jobs and an economic impact of more than $115 million a year, according to Lockheed’s statistics. The company said Dicks’ home state ranks 14th in the number of jobs produced by the F-35.
Dicks said the number of jobs is only a side benefit.
“I never support a defense program just based on what it’s going to do in Washington state,” he said. “It has to meet the standard of: Is this a good program, and is it going to work? This is a program that we have to make work – because we’re going to buy about 2,500 of these.”
That’s an exciting prospect for officials at Fatigue Technology Inc. in Tukwila, where 181 employees help engineer, produce or market fasteners, bushings, fittings and other parts for the F-35. The company has been involved in the jet project for at least five years, officials said.
“It has the potential to be our No. 1 selling aircraft – hopefully those (production) rates are real and we can make lots of money for the company and Washington state and the economy as a whole,” said Kale Paulson, Fatigue’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Obviously, aerospace is a big part of Washington and the Seattle-Puget Sound area, so there’s definitely a lot of jobs tied to that program specifically.”
But Paulson said there’s “an uncertainty factor” surrounding the program that complicates planning efforts: “There’s some hesitancy as to if we want to invest in the program, even though we’ve invested quite a bit thus far.”
Lockheed Martin officials declined to release a complete list of suppliers in Washington state. But it said the F-35 has at least 23 suppliers in the state, including Sandvik Special Metals in Kennewick, CNC Diversified Manufacturing in Kent and Eldec Corp. in Lynnwood.
“Many of these suppliers are small businesses and may or may not be aware of how their part or component is used in the production” of the F-35, Laurie Quincy, a spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, said in an email.
Last month, the Center for Responsive Politics said the primary contractors building the F-35 – Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and Pratt & Whitney – had contributed $326,400 to members of the F-35 caucus in the first year of the 2012 election cycle. Each member of the caucus received an average of $6,094, nearly double what the firms’ political action committees had given to representatives not in the caucus, the study found.
Granger and Dicks were among the largest beneficiaries: Granger received $45,700, while Dicks got $29,500, according to the study.
The study’s authors called the influence of campaign contributions “a subtle force” and said those in Congress who are deciding the fate of billion-dollar programs such as the F-35 “routinely raise thousands of dollars from them – and even invest their own money in – the companies behind these programs.”
Dicks said there’s no connection between the contributions and how he votes.
“I had no idea how much they contributed – I don’t even really look at that,” he said. “My view on this is I try to call these things on the merits and support the programs that I think that are going to add to the security of the country. Campaign contributions have nothing to do with it.”
Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009