Bloomberg reports: The Pentagon envisioned the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as an affordable, state-of-the-art stealth jet serving three military branches and U.S. allies.
Instead, the Lockheed Martin Corp. aircraft has been plagued by a costly redesign, bulkhead cracks, too much weight, and delays to essential software that have helped put it seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial cost estimate. At almost $400 billion, it’s the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history.
It is also the defense project too big to kill. The F-35 funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman Corp. and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway. It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs — and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed. The F-35 is an example of how large weapons programs can plow ahead amid questions about their strategic necessity and their failure to arrive on time and on budget.
“It’s got a lot of political protection,” said Winslow Wheeler, a director at the Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information in Washington. “In that environment, very, very few members of Congress are willing to say this is an unaffordable dog and we need to get rid of it.”
The Pentagon said today it suspended all F-35 flights after a routine engine inspection of a test aircraft revealed a crack on a turbine blade. The jet is also facing scrutiny as the March 1 deadline to avert automatic U.S. budget cuts approaches. The across-the-board reductions would take as much as $45 billion this year from defense programs, including the F-35.
Among the contractors, Lockheed has the greatest exposure to the F-35, said Richard Aboulafia, a military analyst with Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group. The program made up 13 percent of the company’s $46.5 billion in revenue (LMT) in 2011, according to a regulatory filing.
“Unlike much of their subcontractor base, they have no commercial market” to protect against hits to the F-35, Aboulafia said in a phone interview. [Continue reading…]