It's a time-tested ploy. When a weapons system can't be justified based on cost, capabilities, and need, the manufacturer touts how many jobs the program will create. So it is with Lockheed Martin and its troubled F-35 combat aircraft.
The company's latest official claim for F-35 jobs is that it will create full-time employment for 133,000 workers nationwide. But an analysis I did two years ago demonstrates that the company is claiming more than twice as many jobs as the program is actually likely to create. To add insult to injury, the company also asserts that many more states will benefit from the program than is actually the case.
The F-35 jobs issue arose again this week when Cleveland.com ran a piece on the F-35's myriad problems, published well in advance of the plane's scheduled appearance at the Cleveland Air Show on Labor Day week-end. Among the long list of problems listed in the article are the steep increase in unit costs for the aircraft, which have nearly doubled since the program's inception; fundamental issues like poor software and engine performance; difficulty operating in bad weather; and problems with the plane's pilot ejection seat.
F-35 program manager Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan claims that most of the plane's problems have been fixed, but the engine and software problems have persisted, and a new report by the Pentagon's independent testing office, summarized by the Project on Government oversight, has uncovered a whole new round of issues with the aircraft. Dan Lamothe of the Washington Post reported on these problems last month in a piece aptly entitled "All the Ways the F-35 Is Screwed Up, According to the Pentagon's Top Weapons Tester."
The independent tester's report comes at a critical time for the F-35 program, as the Pentagon has been raising the idea of a huge 450-plane "block buy" that would allegedly lead to lower costs for the program. The testing office makes clear in no uncertain terms that the block buy is a bad idea, noting that it would reduce Lockheed Martin's incentive to "correct an already substantial list of deficiencies of performance, a list that will only grow as . . . testing continues."
No wonder Lockheed Martin is once again trotting out the jobs argument to bolster support for the F-35, which at a cost of roughly $1.5 trillion over its lifetime is slated to be the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon.
In response to the Cleveland.com article, the company asserted that the F-35 program would create 2,623 "direct and indirect" jobs in Ohio. Herein lies the rub. Lockheed Martin's way of estimating "indirect jobs" -- generated at lower-tier suppliers and through expenditures of wages by direct F-35 employees -- wildly overstates the case. The truth is that the bulk of F-35 jobs - more than half - will be at the primary production sites in Texas and California. And if job creation is the issue, spending on overpriced fighter jets is virtually the least effective way to do it. A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts demonstrates that virtually any other form of government activity -- from investing in infrastructure to cutting taxes - creates substantially more jobs than military spending. For example, investing in clean energy projects creates about one and one-half times as many jobs per amount spent as Pentagon outlays.
So rather than treating it as a jobs program, let's make the F-35 program rise or fall on its merits. That would mean holding off on the 450-plane "block buy" contemplated by the Pentagon, and deciding whether it's worth going beyond the 500 planes already committed to, out of a planned total of over 2,400. A study done last year by analysts at the National Security Network has demonstrated that even if it performs as advertised, the F-35 will be inferior to current generation aircraft. So let's put bogus job claims aside and make an objective assessment of whether the F-35 is affordable or necessary at a time of other pressing national needs.