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Congress to Pentagon: Have Some More F-35s – on Us!

Cost per unit: $100 million

The poster-child for troubled Pentagon programs everywhere, the F-35, in development for almost 16 years, is several years behind schedule and has cost around $400 billion to date. Conceived in 2001, the fifth-generation aircraft and its variants are meant to replace mutiple planes across the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. An endless string of setbacks has slowed the program, but last year, the Marines declared its version ready for deployment, and the Air Force hopes to do so this year.

The Defense Department loves its new, wildly expensive stealth fighter jet, but it looks like Congress may love it even more.

The Pentagon requested 77 Lockheed F-35 Lightnings in the 2019 fiscal year, but lawmakers are pushing to increase funding to cover the cost of more aircraft. The Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday added $1.2 billion to its version of the 2019 defense bill for an additional 12 jets, while the House Appropriations Committee added money for 16 more. The House could vote on its defense appropriations package as soon as Wednesday night, while the Senate is expected to vote on its bill on Thursday.

The extra funding will speed up the production of the still-troubled jet, says Bloomberg’s Anthony Capaccio, despite a recent report from the Government Accountability Office that recommended delaying increased production until hundreds of “deficiencies” have been resolved and the jet undergoes a year of combat testing, which is scheduled to begin in September.

Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight told Capaccio that the F-35 “is far from stable with nearly 1,000 deficiencies remaining,” and warned that increasing production won’t improve military effectiveness and could end up costing more money in the long run. “[T]hese 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.

Lawmakers, however, may have other things than military effectiveness in mind — namely, jobs and the economic impact of production. The additional planes were added to the House version of the funding bill at the urging of Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican who represents the Texas district that contains Lockheed’s F-35 assembly plant. Lockheed has strong support in Congress, Capaccio notes, thanks in part to its network of 1,500 suppliers scattered across 46 states.

Defense analyst Richard Aboulafia told Capaccio that the push to build more F-35s in the coming fiscal year is “really a simple matter of wanting more jobs and money.” At current levels, the “program is very healthy and fat with orders, so more planes are just icing on the cake,” Aboulafia said, adding that the additional funding might be better spent on sustaining the existing fleet.

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