The U.S. representative, a Democrat from El Paso, said Congress has been to blame when the next-generation fighter program has faltered regarding its production schedule and safety issues during a campaign stop in Fort Worth on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. David Kent dkent@star-telegram.com
The U.S. representative, a Democrat from El Paso, said Congress has been to blame when the next-generation fighter program has faltered regarding its production schedule and safety issues during a campaign stop in Fort Worth on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. David Kent dkent@star-telegram.com

Politics & Government

Beto O’Rourke steers F-35 program back into political storm

By Anna M. Tinsley

atinsley@star-telegram.com

September 22, 2017 03:14 PM

UPDATED September 22, 2017 03:38 PM

FORT WORTH

Democrat Beto O’Rourke is worried about the F-35 fighter jets being produced in Fort Worth.

The man waging a long-shot bid to unseat Republican Ted Cruz in 2018 bases his concerns on past problems with the program, something Lockheed Martin officials say they’ve worked to address.

“I am deeply troubled by the history of that program, the cost overruns, the delays in production and delivery and some of the safety concerns that have been brought to our attention,” O’Rourke, who wants to become the state’s next junior senator, told the Star-Telegram’s Editorial Board.

“At the same time, I think the consensus is that we’ve made such a strong investment in this,” the U.S. representative from El Paso said. “If we can get it right, it is going to give us a superior edge that I don’t think any other country can match.”

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F-35 stealth fighters — which make up the most costly weapons program in the United States — are manufactured at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth and make up a key part of the local economy.

Company officials in Fort Worth say, despite past schedule delays and cost overruns, that they’ve lowered expenses and hired more workers.

“Today’s F-35 program — which supports 38,000 jobs in Texas — is delivering unrivaled fifth generation capability to our men and women in uniform as the aircraft is operating at 12 bases worldwide,” according to a company statement that notes the company has delivered more than 240 aircraft and is boosting production of the jets.

We are on a path to deliver the fifth generation F-35 for the price of a fourth generation aircraft — $80-85 million dollars — by 2020.

Statement from Lockheed Martin

“To support increased production, we are adding more than 1,800 F-35 jobs in Fort Worth over the next two years,” the written statement continued. “The unit cost of the F-35 has come down more than 60 percent since the first production lot, and we are on a path to deliver the fifth generation F-35 for the price of a fourth generation aircraft — $80-85 million dollars — by 2020.”

An issue for President Trump

The F-35s became a hot political issue last year, when they caught the attention of Donald Trump before he ever became president.

He took the issue to social media, drawing massive media attention to the program.

“The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump tweeted. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”

Years before then, technical issues bogged down the program, creating delays and raising costs. The Pentagon even put the program on probation at one point.

After Trump’s criticism, Lockheed Martin executives stepped up, promising to hire more workers, which they’ve been doing through job fairs this year, and bring down the cost of the program.

O’Rourke, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, said Congress in the past dropped the ball on oversight of the F-35 program.

He said he hopes to be part of “correcting (that) going forward.”

Cruz praises ‘our warfighters’

Earlier this year, Cruz touted the need for the F-35 — and the role the jets play in protecting the nation.

“The F-35 Lightning II is the world’s most advanced multi-role fighter — providing unmatched combat capabilities to our military forces, while securing 38,000 direct and indirect jobs for Texans,” he said in late May. “This program is not only critical to the United States, but also to our allies around the world.

“It is my view that we must continue the program’s cost-savings efforts, while simultaneously pursuing all options to rapidly field the F-35 to our warfighters,” he said. “Today’s increasing threat environment proves that the U.S military and our allies need the air superiority advantage provided by the F-35 as quickly as possible. As the world’s premier fighter aircraft, we are proud that these amazing machines are manufactured right here in Texas.”

O’Rourke acknowledged that improvements have been made and he has faith that the Armed Services Committee will do what’s right.

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, has long been considered one of the biggest boosters of the F-35, consistently defending it for years.

O’Rourke said he and other members of Congress will “continue to watch that program, demand excellence and accountability in the results.

“All we can do is try to make it better.”

Beto O'Rourke explains his solitary social media strategy

The Democratic representative from El Paso does all his posting himself, and tends to use Facebook Live more than Twitter

David Kent dkent@star-telegram.com

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) town hall meeting

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D), who is challenging Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate next year, held a town hall gathering before a full crowd at the Roundup Inn (in the Will Rogers Complex) in Fort Worth, Friday, August 11, 2017.

Paul Moseley pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley