Anyone still puzzled by the rise of Donald Trump should consider this fact: Congress voted that the 2016 Defense Budget include 10 F-35s beyond the number requested by the Pentagon. These unsought additions come at a cost of US$1.33 billion when the United States is saddled with much debt and the budget can’t stretch to all the things the US military actually does need. The House of Representatives and the Senate have been controlled by the Republican Party since the mid-term elections of November, 2014. So the extra 10 F-35s are a gift from the Republican establishment to Lockheed Martin. Those aircraft will join the 180 already completed F-35s, none of which has met performance specifications and all unable to fly in combat.
Lockheed Martin maintains a stable of 95 lobbyists in Washington. Lockheed Martin’s board includes a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Ralston, and a former Commander, Air Force Materiel Command, Bruce Carlson. Nearly one in ten members of the House of Representatives belongs to the F-35 caucus.
Defense lobbyists in Washington as a whole have been spending about US$130 million per annum. Contributions from the defense lobby to members of Congress total another US$28 million, rising from an average of US$10,000 per annum in 1990 to over US$40,000 per annum now, at least to the Republican ones. There are much higher individual totals. Congressman Mac Thornberry (Republican – Texas) got US$256,050 in the 2015 year. Senator John McCain (Republican – Arizona) received US$186,250. McCain talks the talk on defense reform but does nothing. Congress has been bought and the investment is paying off handsomely.
If the Republican establishment has prostituted itself for 30 pieces of silver, perhaps there’s hope amongst the Democrats. Nope – even as the hair shirt-wearing Bernie Sanders rails against the evils of capitalism and Wall Street, he is an F-35 supporter because of jobs in Vermont. It almost goes without saying that Mrs Clinton’s ties to Lockheed Martin are strong and deep. The Clinton Foundation has taken millions from the company, which has paid her husband US$200,000 in speaking fees. Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman owns the firm that lobbied for the F-35’s approval. The list goes on.
So it is back to the Republican presidential candidates to see if there is any hope that public interest might prevail over private interest. Let’s start with Marco Rubio, who wants to accelerate F-35A procurement, meaning he is either clueless or corrupt. As for Ted Cruz, Lockheed Martin employs 13,700 people in Texas with a yearly payroll of US$1.4 billion, so Cruz prefers not to mention the F-35 while doing nothing to end the boondoggle. That leaves Mr Trump, who said he will heed the dire reviews of test pilots and dump the F-35.
It seems that Mr Trump has read the assessment of the F-35 pilot who flew a mock combat exercise with an F-16 in early 2015. It is worth quoting Mr Trump directly,
I do hear that it’s not very good. I’m hearing that our existing planes are better. And one of the pilots came out of the plane, one of the test pilots, and said this isn’t as good as what we already have,” Trump said. “And to spend billions and billions of dollars on something that maybe isn’t as good …
They’re saying it doesn’t perform as well as our existing equipment, which is much less expensive. So when I hear that, immediately I say we have to do something, because you know, they’re spending billions. This is a plane, there’s never been anything like it in terms of cost. And how about, you know, we’re retooling with planes that aren’t as good as the ones we have, and the test pilots are amazing people. They know better than anybody, OK, and I think you would accept that.
A decade ago it might have been difficult for an ostentatious billionaire to become president of the United States. Now that is possibly his biggest selling point. He can’t be bought. There is the chance that he will be making decisions, as president, on the merits of the matter. It could be well worth putting up with his manifest shortcomings just for the prospect of that. Otherwise the pillaging of the public purse will continue apace.
David Archibald is the author of Australia’s Defence (Connor Court).