By MIKE FITZGERALD — News-Democrat
BELLEVILLE — The letters have been streaming into the office of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, for months now.
They’ve poured in from all corners of Illinois, from chambers of commerce and city councils of Orland Hills, Elk Grove and Downers Grove. One even came from the St. Clair County Housing Authority, according to Durbin’s office.
The letters urge Durbin, the chairman of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, to keep alive the controversial F-35 Joint Strike Fighter because the program supports 2,000 jobs in Illinois and generates more than $500 million in economic benefits.
On Monday, the Belleville City Council joined the public bodies urging Durbin to save the F-35, which, with a planned cost of $1.5 trillion, is the most expense weapons program in Pentagon history. It’s also been one of the most heavily criticized.
But in urging the council to approve the letter (a copy of which also was sent to U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Belleville), Mayor Mark Eckert did not cite the F-35’s history of operational failures and cost overruns, or the fact that Durbin has expressed skepticism about the program’s future.
Instead, Eckert told the council that Scott Air Force Base serves all the armed services and that the F-35, even though it won’t be based there, “will create some jobs to help the economic impact of our state and will also indirectly or directly positively affect it.”
Eckert told the council the letter originated with Jeff Dixon, the son of former U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon, D-Belleville.
When asked if Jeff Dixon, a Chicago lobbyist, works for anyone connected to the F-35, Eckert replied, “I’m not sure who his employer is,” according to a videotape of the meeting posted online.
Dixon acknowledged to the News-Democrat that he is working indirectly for defense giant Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s primary contractor.
“I think it’s just an effort to demonstrate the support for the program and why it’s good for the country and any region of the country,” Dixon said of the campaign to promote the F-35.
But Melinda Hult, a Ward 2 alderwoman, accused Eckert of lobbying on behalf of Lockheed Martin by sending the letter in support of the F-35 to Durbin.
“I felt he was using the city as a lobbyist and that is inappropriate,” said Hult, the only council member to vote against the letter supporting the F-35. “I feel it’s really inappropriate for a municipality to be acting as a lobbyist, especially on issues we know nothing about.”
Laura Siebert, a Lockheed Martin spokeswoman, said the effort to promote the F-35 is coming from both Lockheed and its supplier base.
“Because it’s just as important to our supplier base that they continue to have these jobs at a time when budgets are being cut, and sequestration is at the forefront,” she said. “It’s important that our country and the people need to understand the need for this aircraft. The threats are there. We need this aircraft. And the secondary message, by the way, is it supports over 100,000 jobs in this country. So it’s a great story.”
The F-35 was conceived as a “fifth generation” fighter that could serve the wide-ranging needs the Air Force, Navy and Marines in the decades ahead. In 2001, the Pentagon planned to buy 2,852 of the planes. The current estimated cost per plane is about $120 million.
The Marine Corps version of the F-35 is scheduled to begin operational flying in two years. The Air Force and Navy versions are set to begin flying in 2016 and 2019, respectively. The Pentagon estimates it will spend $136 billion a year for the next three decades to operate the F-35 fleet.
But after decades of setbacks, the fighter program reached a crossroads at a time when the Pentagon faces $500 billion in planned budget cuts over the next decade, plus another $500 billion in cuts because of the federal budget sequester.
In 2012, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially took the Marine Corps version of the fighter plane off probation. Recent reports, however, show the program is at least $150 billion over budget.
Durbin raised questions in June about the F-35’s viability.
“In the financial industry, we have this phrase, ‘too big to fail,’ and I’m wondering if this project is so large in scope that it was too big to cancel,” Durbin said. “Have we reached a point when it comes to acquisitions in the future that we have to take this into consideration?”
The answer is yes, according to Stephen Miles, a spokesman for Win Without War, a not-for-profit coalition of groups seeking a “smart” military spending policy.
Miles said it’s no coincidence letters to the U.S. Congress calling for support of the F-35 program are going out now, when efforts are underway to slash the nation’s military spending.
“I think the uptick of activity that you see coming from (Lockheed Martin) is indicative of concern over the future of the program,” said Miles, who started an online petition calling for the F-35’s cancellation. “Everyone recognizes that the program as planned is unsustainable. There simply isn’t $1.5 trillion to spend on a weapons system that doesn’t work.”
A spate of recent news stories have highlighted the F-35’s woes with software, engine turbine blades and the fact, recently reported in Vanity Fair magazine, that the “Pentagon’s supposedly ‘all weather’ F-35 Lightning II, ironically cannot fly within 25 miles of lighting.”
Money for the F-35 is money that could come from other defense programs that could directly benefit Scott Air Force Base, Miles said.
“The reality is if you protect the F-35, you do so at the expense of other programs,” he said.