The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon would cut its annual order for new Fort Worth-made F-35 joint strike fighters by more than one-fourth under President Joe Biden’s budget proposal released Monday, a move sure to set off alarm bells in many Capitol Hill offices.
The sophisticated, radar-evading fighter jets represent the most expensive weapons program in the U.S. arsenal, with federal dollars flowing to suppliers in districts across the country.
Lockheed Martin said the program supports tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs in Texas, including at the company’s primary F-35 production facility located in Fort Worth, where it employs more than 18,000 people.
Fort Worth Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey said he’ll fight to fund the program, and began lobbying the White House even before the budget was released. Fort Worth Rep. Kay Granger, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, also is set to defend the F-35, saying the program is more critical than ever for national security.
A late 2019 Pentagon report had projected buying 94 of the jets in the fiscal 2023 cycle, which would represent a bump from the 85 included in the 2022 cycle.
Instead, the request unveiled Monday calls for paring back the number of F-35s purchased to just 61.
“Regarding the reduced F-35 buy being proposed, Congress will be unhappy,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense budget expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said by email.
While cutting the number of new F-35 fighters, the Air Force seeks to bump up purchases of Boeing’s F-15EX.
Eaglen said the cut in F-35s is partly an effort to pressure Lockheed Martin to improve its performance on a package of technology upgrades for the jet. A Pentagon testing office report from January highlighted problems with upgrades that are “immature, deficient, and insufficiently tested.”
During their Monday budget briefings, top Pentagon officials repeatedly tied the cuts in F-35 numbers to a desire to see those technology upgrades in place.
Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones was the 2018 and 2020 Democratic nominee in Texas’ 23rd district but lost both of those races.
During a budget briefing at the Pentagon on Monday, Jones told reporters that Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall III has been deliberate about balancing the service’s portfolio of fighters. She said the proposal does “prioritize modernization over procurement,” but that includes money for advancements within the F-35 program.
“So we remain committed to the F-35,” Jones said. “And Secretary Kendall has said often that it’ll continue to be the cornerstone of our future fighter fleet, but we prioritize modernization.”
She said that means getting the hardware and software upgrades for the fighters in place.
Overall, the $773 billion proposed defense budget represents about a 4% increase over the fiscal 2022 level.
The administration’s budget proposal serves as a key starting point for Congress’ annual spending bills, but ultimately lawmakers have the final say. There is a long history of the executive branch proposing cuts to weapons systems only to see them restored by members of Congress who are focused on jobs for their constituents.
“I expect in the end, Congress may fund more than the president’s budget and less than the previous plan,” Eaglen said of the F-35s.
Granger has touted funding for the F-35 program in the past and holds significant sway as the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
“Efforts to shortchange key modernization and procurement plans are misguided and will only put our national security at great risk. As China and other adversaries continue to invest in fighter capabilities, it is more critical now than ever to continue the investments made in the F-35 program,” Granger said in a statement released late Monday.
Veasey said in a statement earlier Monday that he was disappointed the administration proposed to cut F-35 numbers.
“The F-35 has always been an essential tool to protect our national security — especially now as we work with our allies to help protect their sovereignty,” Veasey said. “I remain committed to working with my colleagues to ensure the Joint Strike Fighter program is properly funded to bolster national security, enhance global partnerships, and power economic growth in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex that I represent and across the country.”
When reports of potential F-35 cuts surfaced earlier this month, Veasey joined one of his fellow House Democrats and two Republicans in expressing concerns to the White House.
They wrote in a letter to Biden that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underscores the importance of defense spending and took issue with what they described as the “drastic cut” in F-35 numbers.
The lawmakers cited testimony from several U.S. commanders emphasizing the need for F-35s. They also noted that the F-35 has been deployed to Europe, and the German government recently announced it is reversing a previous decision and now plans to purchase 35 of the jets, joining countries such as Switzerland and Finland.
“A decrease in the number of F-35′s in your budget request would undermine messages of cooperation and mutual defense,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is imperative we continue to invest in the F-35 enterprise to increase capacity and maintain a margin of capability required to dominate near-peer competitors in any potential conflict.”
In addition to its role in national security, the F-35 program is important to the U.S. manufacturing base, they wrote, citing more than 1,650 suppliers involved in their production — half of which are small or disadvantaged businesses.
“It supports more than 298,000 high-tech, high-paying American jobs annually, thousands of whom are skilled union members,” they wrote. “At a time when our economy has suffered the devastating effects of COVID-19, this enterprise has continued to create jobs, foster workforce development, and spur economic opportunity.”
Lockheed Martin said in a brief statement that “We look forward to working with the Administration and the Congress as the President’s Fiscal Year 23 budget receives full consideration in the months ahead.”