Lawmakers Back Lockheed’s F-35 Jet for Production Boost

(Bloomberg) -- Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 received a vote of confidence Tuesday from a congressional defense funding panel, three months before the Pentagon’s costliest program is to start vigorous testing to demonstrate its combat capability.

The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee added $1.2 billion to speed the purchase of 12 fighters on top of the 77 the Pentagon requested, as the panel approved its defense spending measure for fiscal 2019. Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Committee added 16 F-35s in its version of the measure at the urging of Representative Kay Granger, who has Lockheed’s F-35 assembly plant in her Texas district.

The votes all but guarantee that the final version of the defense spending bill will provide for an acceleration of F-35 production for the second consecutive year. The Senate is scheduled to take up the $675 billion defense bill on Thursday, and the House may act as soon as this week. Congress added 20 F-35s to the 70 requested by the Defense Department in the current year.

Despite a history of performance setbacks, the F-35 retains strong support in Congress as a next-generation fighter and as a job creator. Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed boasts that it uses 1,500 suppliers in 46 states and more internationally.

‘Far From Stable’

The additional planes “don’t make sense from an effectiveness standpoint,” said Dan Grazier, a military analyst with the Project on Government Oversight who closely follows the program.

The F-35’s design “is far from stable with nearly 1,000 deficiencies remaining” so “these additional aircraft will be added to the hundreds of others purchased already that will have limited combat value and require lengthy and expensive retrofits when and if the design is ever completed,” Grazier said in an email.

The depth of F-35 support was reflected in an April 4 letter sent by 97 House Republicans and Democrats to Granger, who heads the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry and their Democratic counterparts, urging the approval of 93 jets.

Granger said her panel’s support for added F-35s was aimed at ensuring stable production, not just providing jobs. The panel “has been consistent in its support for this program year after year, well before I became chairwoman” last year, she said in a statement.

In addition to the April 4 letter, “we also received numerous individual requests from members supporting the increase,” Granger said. “The F-35 has a $31 billion annual economic impact,” she said.

‘Healthy and Fat’

But Richard Aboulafia, a defense aerospace analyst with the Teal Group of Fairfax, Virginia, said the added F-35s are “really a simple matter of wanting more jobs and money.”

“The program is very healthy and fat with orders, so more planes are just icing on the cake,” he said in an email. “If they do want to add money, it might be better spent on sustainment and readiness for the existing fleet,” he said.

The F-35 is supposed to undergo an intense year of combat testing starting in September, already at least a year late. Combat testing is necessary before the plane can be reviewed for full-rate production, probably in late 2019.

“Until that occurs, all the American people will receive from increased production are more unproven, and extremely expensive prototypes,” Grazier said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.