By Donna Cassata
With the U.S. deep in debt and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the American military knows it is in for painful spending cuts.
Touch military benefits and face the wrath of Congress -- and a network of veterans groups -- even though the cost of health care has exploded from $19 billion in 2001 to $53 billion. Trim the number of troops and trigger cries of a "hollow" military and warnings that the Vietnam-era draft may be revived to fill the ranks.
There is a potential target among weapons systems. It is the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the next generation, supersonic aircraft for the Air Force, Marines and Navy and some foreign air forces, the biggest weapon procurement program for the Pentagon at a cost of $238 billion. The aircraft has not lived up to its other name -- Lightning II -- falling behind schedule and rising over budget, with one variant of the plane suffering cracks in the bulkhead after it flew just 1,500 hours out of a planned 16,000.
Some estimates suggest the actual cost could exceed $1 trillion over 50 years.
"There is no doubt there are scandalous cost overruns associated with it," John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday. "The first trillion-dollar weapons system in history."
But the aircraft has a daunting constituency facing those who would go after it: some 130,000 jobs in 47 states and Puerto Rico and scores of Republican and Democratic friends in Congress.
The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has 1,300 domestic suppliers, and work ranges from Palmdale, California, in the district of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon to engine builder Pratt and Whitney in Connecticut.
Indeed, the only states without F-35 work are Hawaii, North Dakota and Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia. The company says the positive economic impact this year will be $12.6 billion, based on building one to two aircraft a month. The full production will be 18-20 aircraft per month.
It is "the single largest job generator in the Department of Defense program budget," said Laurie Quincy, a spokeswoman for the company. That's no small factor with a shaky economy and unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent.
"It's jobs in the U.S. as well as jobs for allies and partners," said Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican, whose district includes Fort Worth where the aircraft's forward section is being built. "United Kingdom, Australia, Japan. It's very important for Israel. The first delivery of F-35s is Israel."
In a show of congressional might, Granger and Rep. Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee, recently formed the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus in the House and attracted 40 members.
"Cuts are occurring everywhere, but we have to save this program because it is our answer to air superiority," Granger said, contending the aircraft is testing well and dismissing the problems as "hiccups." ''We lose that program, we lose our air superiority."
In a concerted campaign, lawmakers are finding out how many F-35 jobs are in their states and districts, while Lockheed Martin has invited members of Congress to visit the Fort Worth plant to see the production and sit in the plane's cockpit. The Pentagon plans to buy 2,456 jets.
Granger said she invited McCain to visit the plant. "I'd love to show him through," she said.
McCain said he has "seen many, many factories in my life and it's not necessary for me to see a factory to see billions of dollars of cost overruns." The former Navy fighter pilot stopped short of saying the program should be canceled.
Last February, however, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised that possibility when he unveiled his proposed defense budget and said the Pentagon would buy 124 fewer planes between 2012 and 2016.
The plane is "on the equivalent of a two-year probation," Gates said. "If we cannot fix this variant during this time frame ... then I believe it should be canceled."
Gates' successor, Leon Panetta, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are certain to face questions about where to cut defense dollars when they testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
In a speech this week, Panetta said, "In this fiscal environment, every program, contract and facility will be scrutinized for savings that won't reduce readiness or our ability to perform essential missions."
In the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, budgets for the military have nearly doubled to close to $700 billion, the highest level of spending since World War II when adjusted for inflation. Presidents and the Pentagon routinely have asked for billions for ships and aircraft, weapons and personnel, and Congress has eagerly complied, unwilling to say no with the nation at war.
The open spigot of defense dollars "hasn't forced us to make the hard trades. It hasn't forced us to prioritize. It hasn't forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn't forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point in a very turbulent world of what we're going to do and what we're not going to do," then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said earlier this year.
Now the Pentagon and Congress will have to make the "hard trades." This past summer's debt agreement between President Barack Obama and Congress mandates $350 billion in cuts over 10 years, a number that could grow significantly depending on how the special bipartisan supercommittee calculates a way to slash at least $1.2 trillion from future deficits. If the panel stumbles, or Congress rejects its proposal, the cut to defense could be even deeper as automatic reductions kick in, with half coming from defense.
In the weeks since the debt accord, Pentagon officials and lawmakers from both parties have spoken with one voice in warning about the dangers of the automatic cuts, but few have been in agreement about how to avoid them. Democrats say the government needs to produce more revenue through tax increases. Republicans want cuts to come from domestic programs.