The F-35: Mo’ Money, Fewer Jobs

A new report questions claims that the overbudget F-35 program is creating jobs.

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F-35 AF-1 leaves the runway near Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas, facility during its inaugural flight on Nov. 14.
An F-35 AF-1 leaves the runway near Lockheed Martin's facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

If there were a Congressional Boondoggle Hall of Fame, the F-35 fighter jet program would surely merit entry. Officially the most expensive weapons system in history, the cost of manufacturing the jets has increased a whopping 75 percent from its original estimate, and is now closing in on $400 billion. Over its lifetime, the F-35 program is expected to cost U.S. taxpayers $1.5 trillion, between construction and maintenance of the jets, if they ever all materialize.

Oh, and did I mention that the plane doesn't really work?

So how does such a project stay afloat? Because of jobs! Lockheed Martin, the defense company charged with delivering the jets, claims the program supports 125,000 jobs in 46 different states. That $400 billion for 125,000 jobs would be a lousy deal – at $3.2 million per job it would far cheaper to cut every one of those workers a $1 million check. But beyond that, there's good reason to believe that Lockheed's estimate is overblown.In a new report for the Center for International Policy, William Hartung claims the number of jobs created by the F-35 is more like 50,000 to 60,000, and that the number of states in which it supports job creation is also far lower than Lockheed would have us believe.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

According to Hartung, Lockheed uses a much larger ratio of so-called "indirect jobs" – jobs created by companies that supply materials or other services for the F-35, or jobs created when those working on the F-35 spend their wages – than the academic literature warrants. Applying a more realistic ratio brings the job creation estimate down considerably. (Lockheed, of course, contests Hartung's numbers.)

"The bottom line is that the F-35 creates fewer jobs and affects fewer communities than Lockheed Martin and the other producers of the aircraft claim," Hartung wrote. "This means that Congress and the executive branch can feel free to debate the future of the F-35 based on its strategic merits, not pork barrel politics."

But therein lies the problem in getting rid of any worthless piece of weapons junk: Members of Congress are always loathe to cut programs that support jobs, particularly when those jobs are in their state or district. There's even an entire "Joint Strike Fighter Caucus" in Congress dedicated to maintaining this overpriced, underperforming heap of Pentagon pork, and you can bet it's because the death of the program would also mean fewer jobs back home.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Of course, any job losses – particularly at a time of sky high unemployment – are a problem. But it's even unclear, at this point, what the F-35 would be used for. Aerial combat between fighter planes, as Hartung notes, "seems like an increasingly obsolete form of warfare." Even if it weren't, as former Assistant Defense Secretary Larry Korb writes, "our existing fighter planes are the best in the world and unmanned aircraft are taking over more and more missions."

There are plenty of worthwhile things that the government could be purchasing for that $1.5 trillion that would create both jobs and a useful product. Instead, it is continuing the procurement of a worthless weapon, a sure-fire way to waste taxpayer resources at a time when everyone in Washington is screaming bloody murder over the deficit. Though I have little hope that Congress will step up and do the right thing, Hartung's report shows it is long past time for the F-35 to be scrapped.

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