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Lockheed Martin strike to make F-35 even more expensive

Published time: April 30, 2012 19:28
Edited time: April 30, 2012 23:28
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (AFP Photo / Keith Simmons)

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (AFP Photo / Keith Simmons)

When all is said and done, the cost of the United States' F-35 jet fighter program is expected to exceed the entire gross domestic product of Spain. But will it be worth the decades of research and $1.5 trillion price tag?

Even with the Pentagon expecting to take another seven years to complete a working fleet of the fighter jets, the status of the program has already spawned reviews that include words like “calamity” and “huge disappointment.” Now things come very soon be getting even costlier as the thousands of workers responsible for the aircraft have walked off the job.

Not only did the US Defense Department announce this week that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s fourth production run is now expected to cost the Pentagon more than half a billion dollars more than originally expected, but unionized workers at the Lockheed Martin factory that handle the production of the aircraft are now on strike for the second week in a row. Voicing concern over how management will not budge on issues pertaining to the health and pension benefits for workers, nearly 3,650 workers at the Fort Worth, Texas Lockheed plant walked off the job last week.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Lodge 776 is participating in the strike, which began in the early morning hours of last Monday. According to protesters, Lockheed Martin wants to abolish defined benefit plans for new hires, which unionized employees fear will cause a split within the workforce. Although management offered a plan that would guarantee pay raises for veteran employees, the next generation of workers would have their own benefits put in jeopardy.

"I accept benefits that this union fights for, and I wouldn't feel right not doing my part," White Settlement Mayor Jerry Burns tells the Star-Telegram. "If I'm a part of the group and they're taking action, I'm taking action."

Unionized workers rejected the proposal by 93 percent.

Kevin Burns, the mayor’s son, adds that he intends on keeping his family in the business and that Lockheed Martin’s proposed contract would question the future of that.

People like "my grandfather, they fought for the pensions back then," Kevin Burns tells the paper. "If they had not fought back in the '80s or when [Lockheed predecessor General Dynamics] got started, I wouldn't have a pension today. My 13-year-old boy is fascinated with this stuff, and there's a chance he might end up out here someday. I don't want him not having a pension if it's at all possible."

As the strike enters its second week, workers at the Pratt & Whitney factory in Connecticut fear that the disruption at the Texas facility could signal a drop in business on their end. Pratt & Whitney supplies Lockheed with engine parts necessary for the F-35, but with production now grinding to a halt, there services might soon not be needed.

Sadly for the Pentagon, that is only the start of their problems with the fighter planes.

The Defense Department has ordered $289 million in additional work to correct problems discovered during the last round of testing for the F-35s. InsideDefense.com says that the next production run will cost the military around $534 million higher than originally expected, and that is just a fraction of what the completed program will do to Uncle Sam’s checkbook.

Although originally touted as a low cost solution, the program that has been in the works since the late 1980s could cost the Defense Department a total of around $1.5 trillion — roughly the gross domestic product of all of Spain, or around one-tenth of America’s GDP. Foreign Policy magazine adds in their own investigation that the new projected total accounts for around 38 percent of the Pentagon’s total procurement allowance for DoD programs.

Foreign Policy also says the program, the most expensive in American history, is a downright “calamity.”

Since the program formally began in 2001, the only thing soaring high for the F-35 is its price tag. Just in 2011, the estimate cost of the program increased by 6 percent from $328.3 billion to $379.4 billion, then another 4 percent in February 2012 to $395.7 billion. The original cost of the program, recalls Foreign Policy, was $226.7 billion back in 2001. That’s a 75 percent increase in cost in barely a decade.

In November, the Defense Department put the expected completion date for its fleet to be 2018, but the latest reports, citing disturbances uncovered during testing, suggest that the program will not be ready until 2019, at which point the actual cost could trump anything ever handled by the Pentagon in the past.

Once the fleet is in operation, however, things are only going to be costlier.

In their own review, Foreign Policy notes that the current appraisal for operations and supports is around $1.1 trillion, which, when coupled with the continuously skyrocketing price tag of the program itself, puts the total cost to be $1.5 trillion. Since the grounding of a test fleet in last year singled the third such pause on the program, the actual cost of maintenance could even be higher.

In the meantime, production at the Fort Worth Lockheed plant are grinding to a halt, putting a decade-long operation barely half way done at an even more questionable and (expensive) deadline.

"They could try to bring in scabs, but this is the most advanced aircraft in the world," IAM spokesperson Bob Woods tells In These Times. "The skills of these workers out here are second to none. All they are doing right now is having a few management guys go around and fiddle with things."

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