Republican lawmakers say scaling back the F-35 program has the potential to harm international relations, since the program includes overseas partners. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is trying out a new line in defense of the embattled F-35 fighter jet. It goes a little something like this: Burn Washington’s partners on the program now, and building coalitions of the willing will be harder later.
In recent weeks, two senior Republicans have suggested the US should avoid buying fewer of the Lockheed Martin-made fighter jets or significantly altering the often-troubled program, which has been plagued by technical, development and testing problems.
The first instance of the new F-35 talking point came from Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, in an April 30 interview with Defense News.
Asked whether he believes the Pentagon and Congress should merely pay whatever costs the program rolls up, Frelinghuysen did not directly answer.
But the New Jersey Republican did say this: “We have an obligation to our international partners. We are not alone in this investment.”
In a further signal that the pro-defense establishment wing of the Republican Party is rallying around the program — and Lockheed, which funnels plenty of campaign cash to the GOP — Frelinghuysen accused critics of “taking some potshots” at the F-35 program.
He added US officials need to “proceed carefully just to make sure that every dollar counts.”
The second utterance of the new GOP line came from an even more senior Republican, Senate Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.
Speaking last Wednesday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, Cornyn was asked about the F-35 program’s troubles. He responded that it is important to complete the program because “we have international partners.”
He continued that burning those countries on the international fighter-development program could create ill will that would make it harder to gain their support on any number of things the United States might opt to do around the globe.
Notably, the F-35 program is a major employer in Cornyn’s native Lone Star State.
Those comments bookmarked a May 7-8 House Armed Services Committee markup of the 2015 Pentagon policy bill during which the troubled program — the most expensive in US history — garnered nary a mention from members of the oversight panel.
And some experts say oversight is drastically needed.
“In truth, the future of the F-35 program remains clouded, and most cloudy of all is the ultimate unit cost of the aircraft and the impact of that cost, as its reality unfolds, on existing and future buyers,” said Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information.
“If [DoD] cannot even get the vector right a few months ahead, what business do they have asserting they can know it precisely 30 years from now? It is quite preposterous,” Wheeler said.
“What they are saying is that data from the immediate past — based on known production costs, actual orders from buyers and real world maintenance expenses — are more than offset by future-unsecured-purchase decisions and unknowable inflation and labor costs out to the year 2065.” ■