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A case study in why it's hard to cut the budget: The F-35

Plane models stand outside the Lockheed Martin Corporation during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II Delivery Ceremony on July 19, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Eddie Lynch helps assemble the F-35 at the Lockheed Martin factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

An F-35 on the assembly line at the Lockheed Martin factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

Chuck Spinney is a retired Pentagon weapons development expert.

The Joint Strike Fighter -- a new, high-tech jet known as the F-35 -- is way over budget and years behind schedule. Yet Congress has not moved to clip its wings.

To find out why, talk to someone like Eddie Lynch. He’s one of thousands of Lockheed Martin workers who make the plane in Fort Worth, Tex. He assembles the plane’s cockpit, and he’s proud of the work.

"It's a great aircraft," he says. "It's new technology. The best in the world right now is being put together here."

Lockheed says the F-35 is the "most flexible, technologically sophisticated….fighter ever."  There are three versions of the plane -- one each for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. The idea, to save money by creating a single plane for three military branches, is easier said than done. And the F-35 is at least 50 percent over budget. 

So why hasn't it been pared back?  One reason is that production has already started, even though the plane is still in the testing phase.

Critics of the F-35 call that "front loading." Among them is Chuck Spinney, a retired Pentagon weapons development expert.

"Basically the front-loading operation is aimed at getting the program started, and get the money flowing before the consequences of that program are fully understood," he says.

Spinney says that money pays for lots of jobs. Lockheed says the F-35 is responsible for about 125,000 jobs in 46 states. Spinney says the jobs are spread around congressional districts.

Domestic impact

F-35 state-by-state: Lockheed Martin's map of the F-35's footprint across the country.

"The whole idea here is to carpet bomb the congressional districts with jobs, dollars, and profits," Spinney says.

Spinney says the strategy has worked. There have been little tweaks to the F-35 program, but Congress hasn't voted for major reductions. People hoping to pare the program thought they had an answer in sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that Congress agreed to a few years ago. 

They presented a less painful way for cuts to the F-35 program, says Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He says politicians could have reasoned, “Sequester did the cutting. It's not my fault. I was against the sequester."

But now sequestration will be pared back, at least for a couple of years. And the F-35 will likely be spared any cuts, at least for now.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Eddie Lynch helps assemble the F-35 at the Lockheed Martin factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

An F-35 on the assembly line at the Lockheed Martin factory in Fort Worth, Texas.

Chuck Spinney is a retired Pentagon weapons development expert.

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