As Lockheed Martin celebrates a major milestone for the F-35 program Wednesday, some of the plane’s biggest critics concede its political opposition in Washington has all but fizzled.
Congress’s latest budget funds 90 of the planes — 20 more than requested by President Donald Trump, who once railed against their “tremendous cost.”
Government watchdog groups criticize the program for missing deadlines, exceeding cost estimates and failing to live up to promises. But with little appetite left to slow the current program in Washington, they’re now focused on stopping future versions of the plane, rather than convincing Congress to reconsider its investment.
“I have no real illusion we’re going to affect any drastic changes to the F-35,” said Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Project On Government Oversight and one of the program’s leading critics in Washington. “It’s next to impossible to generate enough political opposition to the program.”
Steve Ellis, vice president of another watchdog group, Taxpayers for Common Sense, likened the plane’s inclusion in Congress’ budget to “the [appropriations] version of Oprah.”
“You get a plane, you get a plane, you get a plane!” Ellis said.
Lockheed Martin will roll out the first F-35 made for the Republic of Korea at its Fort Worth plant Wednesday, alongside Texas lawmakers and Pentagon officials.
The company makes the planes for 12 countries, and calls the F-35 “the most advanced fighter aircraft ever built,” thanks to technology that makes it nearly impossible to detect.
The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn, plans to attend Wedneday’s event and stress his personal commitment to the program, which he says has been a help to the Texas economy and national security. Cornyn recently suggested sending upgraded versions of the planes to Taiwan to aid its self-defense efforts.
Another of the program’s biggest champions who will attend, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, runs the congressional panel that allocated defense funds in the most recent budget. She’s vying to lead the full appropriations committee next year, and has touted her influence securing more funds for defense.
“Components [of the F-35] are built in 46 states, and about 350 Congressional districts,” said Grazier. “That’s an awful lot of organic Congressional support for the program on Capitol Hill.”
Trump, who railed against the program as a candidate, has also toned down attacks since taking office.
Last week he called the planes “beautiful,” and praised Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson “the leading women's business executive in this country” at a White House meeting.
Michael Friedman, a Lockheed Martin spokesman for the F-35 program, attributed changing political opinions in Washington to the plane “proving its value” as a defense tool.
“The F-35 is delivering transformational capabilities to men and women in uniform every single day,” said Friedman. “The program is mature. We’re increasing efficiencies and lowering costs.”
Critics credit the shift in Washington’s support to a powerful defense lobby.
“[Trump’s] tune changed rather quickly,” said Grazier. “He’s talking to the generals; he’s talking to the CEO of Lockheed Martin.”
Grazier, who has worked on F-35 issues for three years, says critics of the program have largely given up on matching that effort.
Instead, they’re focused on the Department of Defense’s independent review of the plane’s design, which could begin this fall. That operational test is required before full scale production begins.
Friedman said the F-35 is “nearing completion of its developmental flight testing phase, which represents the most sophisticated, rigorous and comprehensive flight test program in history.”
Grazier said the testing could take years to complete, and will reveal all of the program’s “warts and wrinkles.”
“One of the best things we can do now, the few of us in my position, and just raise awareness of this,” said Grazier. “In 10-15 years when we’re talking about the F-45, hopefully we’re not making the same mistakes.”