The Domestic Politics of National Defense

The troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program suffered another setback yesterday after the Pentagon was forced to ground the entire fleet of fighters after a jet suffered from an unexplained fire while on a runway at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The program is already running well over cost, and has suffered design problems and delays throughout its development period. As an article in Vantiy Fair put it,

The Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons system ever developed. It is plagued by design flaws and cost overruns. It flies only in good weather. The computers that run it lack the software they need for combat. No one can say for certain when the plane will work as advertised. Until recently, the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, was operating with a free hand—paid handsomely for its own mistakes. Looking back, even the general now in charge of the program can’t believe how we got to this point. In sum: all systems go!

Why has Congress, which controls the purse strings, continued to support the most expensive (and apparently, problemed) military procurement program in US history? In part, the fact that, as manufacturer Lockheed Martin maintains, the program sustains 125,000 jobs in 46 states, makes the program popular among members of Congress. While these jobs claims have been dismissed by some as inaccurate, members of Congress are always hesitant to appear either anti-jobs or weak on defense. In this case, the F-35 program has both going for it.

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