Workers assemble a F-35 fighter jet at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Fort Worth, Texas, Oct. 13, 2011. (Reuters/Yonhap News)
Parts of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are produced in 47 US states, creating a powerful lobbying toolBy Park Hyun, Washington correspondent
John McCain, the Republican Party candidate in the 2008 US presidential election, is something of a heavyweight on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In December 2011, he appeared before the Senate calling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program a “scandal and a tragedy.”
In November of the following year, the US Marine Corps set up its first F-35 air station in Arizona, inviting McCain - an Arizona senator - to the inauguration ceremony. The change in attitude was immediate: speaking at the ceremony, McCain declared, “I am, after many years of frustration and setbacks, encouraged that the overall program is moving in the right direction.”
Many observers saw McCain’s shift as indicative of how sensitive US senators are to programs that create jobs in their state. It was also a vivid illustration of how the country’s defense industry is proceeding with high-tech weapons development projects that are receiving massive government funding.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is one of the competitors bidding to become South Korea’s next-generation jet fighter. The project has been under way since 2001, led by Lockheed Martin, the largest defense company in the world. The “fifth-generation fighter” is equipped with stealth functions for evading enemy radar, as well as sensor fusion, using high-tech equipment to detect target movements and alert the pilot.
It is the most expensive weapon in US history. Development costs alone are expected to amount to some US$391 billion, with a total estimated price tag of US$1.5 trillion when management and maintenance over the next 50 years are factored in. The project has remained relatively unscathed by the sequester (including automatic defense budget cuts) carried out by the US government, which currently faces an enormous fiscal deficit. Indeed, Lockheed Martin just got more good news from the US Defense Department, which announced to Congress - its first news in the 12 years since development began - that the F-35 would be ready for deployment in 2016. David M. Scott, director of F-35 International Customer Engagement for Lockheed Martin, reported the department as saying that although it might make adjustments to other programs, it would not be cutting its support for the F-35 project.
But the project has been dogged by controversy even at home, with various flaws detected in test flights, including cracks in the fuselage and engine turbine blades. Delays resulted in development costs ballooning more than 60% from initial predictions.
What accounts for Washington’s decision not to cut the budget, even as it faces a huge deficit?
The biggest reason may be a clever use of strategy from Lockheed Martin, which has a great deal of sway in Washington. Its biggest customer, the Defense Department, needs approval from Congress before it can buy the fighters. This means that the support of Congressional figures is crucial. The industry widely accepts that defense companies’ distribution of plants over various states, and procurement of parts from most of the country’s fifty different states, is part of a strategy to ensure support from all corners.
In the case of the F-35, the number of parts that go into a single airplane is around 50,000. Lockheed Martin has factories, research centers, and parts acquisition firms spread across 47 of the 50 American states. “Directly and indirectly, the F-35 project has allowed us to create 127,000 jobs inside the US,” said Scott. The company argues that, when the F-35 goes into production, the number of jobs created will increase to 260,000 and that it will have a significant economic effect. This is part of a strategic effort on the part of Lockheed Martin. It has even conducted a letter campaign urging the parts companies and employees in each state to express their support for the project to their local members of congress.
This method was first applied with the B-2 strategic bomber. In the late 1950s, weapons manufacturer Rockwell International had begun trying to persuade Congress to develop the B-2 in place of the B-52, but they were rejected time and again because of the astronomical cost of developing the bomber.
In 1975, Rockwell undertook a campaign to win over politicians. The company acquired its parts from 48 states and then used the companies supplying the parts to target members of congress in those regions. In the end, the B-2 project was given the go ahead in the early 1980s during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
Lockheed Martin also provides a considerable amount of campaign funding to members of Congress, reports say. According to the analysis of OpenSecrets.org, a website that releases information about political donations in the US, Lockheed Martin donated money to the campaigns of 425 of the total 535 senators and representatives in 2012. The company contributed to both Republicans and Democrats to gain bipartisan support.
There have also been a series of media reports criticizing the problems with the methods of development and purchasing adopted by Lockheed Martin. In place of the traditional method, in which a prototype is first made and tested before production begins, the company has opted for a new approach in which production and purchase take place even before a test flight is conducted. The company claims that it is possible to check for mistakes through computer simulations.
While critics object that this is a reckless method of developing weapons, the US Department of Defense has permitted the production of jet fighters that have not passed through test flights since 2007. The Pentagon has already purchased 65 fighters. But serious problems started to emerge during the early test flights. Some experts believe that Lockheed Martin hopes to take advantage of the fact that, when production begins before test flights are conducted, it is more difficult to cancel the project even if problems emerge later.
The term “the military-industrial complex” first appeared in a speech by Dwight Eisenhower in 1961, at the end of his time in the White House. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” he warned, noting that “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
The military-industrial complex refers to the process through which vested interests associated with the US military have worked together for immense profits through the growth of the defense industry. The complex can be divided into four large categories: the Department of Defense, arms manufacturers, Congress, and scientists and engineers.
The concept of the military-industrial complex is no longer limited to the US. Thanks to the F-35, it is becoming globalized. During the F-35 planning process, Lockheed Martin unveiled a new market that it calls “global partnerships.” It enlisted foreign countries in the development phase of the fighter. Eight countries participated: the UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Australia, Italy, Canada, and Turkey. About 10% of the parts that are used to manufacture the F-35 are sourced in foreign countries. There are even plans to create an F-35 assembly line in Italy.
There is a training center for F-35s at the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, which a Hankyoreh reporter visited on June 17. Technical teams and pilots from eight countries are receiving joint education and training there. A.J. Pelkington, the lieutenant colonel who is responsible for education and training here, said “From 2011 until now, a total of 50 pilots have received training”.
Such global partnerships increase the likelihood that the project will survive, and their intention is to build a more diverse range of buyers for the airplanes. As overseas sales of fighters increase, Lockheed Martin’s profits go up, and the price per-fighter decreases, allowing the US Defense Department to trim its budget. This is another reason the Defense Department has been so aggressive in working with Lockheed Martin to promote sales of the F-35 overseas.
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