When you're a defense contractor beginning a big new program, one of your key challenges once you've gotten the contract is to make sure the contract never goes away. One way to do that is to bring in the weapons system on time and under budget and win the thanks of a grateful nation. But since big weapons systems almost always come in late and over budget—and being over budget means bigger profits—the better way is to make sure a critical mass of congresspeople have a particular interest in keeping the taxpayer money flowing to your weapon.
Which is why subcontracts on things like fighter jets and bombers are spread far and wide throughout the land, as though Lockheed Martin were a Johnny Appleseed of employment. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, involves 1,300 subcontractors spread across 45 states. Which means that almost every senator and a few hundred members of the House would never think of killing it or scaling it back, no matter how many problems it encounters. But what if the jobs aren't quite as numerous as promised? And what if even if they were, it would be a horrendously bad bargain?
Which brings us to a new report from the Center for International Policy, which argues that Lockheed Martin's claim that the F-35 "supports" 125,000 jobs is wildly exaggerated, and the true figure is between 50,000 and 60,000. But let's remain agnostic on that question for a moment. What might we be spending on the F-35 to create each job?
There's some fuzziness in both the numerator and the denominator here, but the cost estimates for building the planes now run around $400 billion, making the F-35 the most expensive weapons system in American history. Estimates for the long-term cost, which includes maintenance over the decades the plane is supposed to be in service, run well over a trillion dollars, but let's use the $400 billion figure.
If we used Lockheed's number of 125,000 jobs, $400 billion divided by 125,000 gives us $3.2 million spent for each job "supported." If we use the CIP's more modest number of 50,000 jobs, we get $8 million dollars spent per job. Those are some pretty fancy jobs.
Of course, jobs aren't the only reason to build a plane; we also get a plane. Unfortunately, the F-35 has been plagued by a spectacular array of technical problems, so much so that at the moment, the jet isn't allowed to fly at night. Or in the rain. Or within 25 miles of lightning. Or above the speed of sound. Or while climbing at an angle above 18 degrees. You get the idea.
One hopes that eventually all these problems will be worked out, and the F-35 will embody all the wizzbangery and unrivaled air dominance that Lockheed promised when they got the contract in the first place. But the figures we got with our little bit of arithmetic—somewhere between $3.2 million and $8 million per job—tell us that when people cry that we can never cut defense because jobs will be eliminated, we should remember that military spending is probably the least economical way to create jobs.