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The Air Force may receive money in a Senate coronavirus-relief bill for as many as six additional Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft sought in a wish list for next fiscal year—even as Republicans try to hold the line on spending for nutrition aid and unemployment benefits.
The service requested 48 of the new jets for the year starting Oct. 1, and then added another 12 on its annual list of “unfunded priorities,” which it customarily submits to lawmakers outside the regular budget submission. Congressional defense panels have traditionally used the wish lists, from all the military services, to guide the annual spending bills.
While the Senate has yet to write any of the fiscal 2021 spending measures, Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) tucked into the Covid-19 relief draft a $2 billion pool for Air Force aircraft “to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally,’’ with $686 million “only for the F-35A,” according to the text of the draft bill.
It didn’t identify how the $686 million would be spent, much less how many aircraft might be purchased, how many aircraft might be purchased, or how the advanced fighter plane would help deal with the pandemic.
The $398 billion F-35 is the Pentagon’s largest and most expensive weapons program. More than 500 of a potential 3,200 F-35s for the U.S. and allies already have been delivered. The F-35 is in the final stages of intense combat testing to demonstrate it’s effective against the most advanced Russian, Chinese and Iranian threats.
In contrast to the added F-35 funding, the draft Senate bill doesn’t contain a 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits that advocacy groups sought. “The benefits that we’re pushing Congress for translates to about $25 more per month in benefits,’’ said Meredith Jorss, a manager with the group Share Our Strength, whose goal is to end hunger in the U.S. and abroad.
“For the same level of investment— $686 million—Congress could provide that additional SNAP benefit to more than 4.5 million kids for 6 months while families get back on their feet,” she said.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans are also fighting over extending unemployment benefits for millions of people who lost their jobs as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the U.S. economy. For comparison, $686 million would provide $600 for about 1.1 million Americans for one week.
The mysterious F-35 allocation led to the misconception that Senate Republicans were refilling the Air Force’s coffers after the Pentagon shifted money for the construction of a border wall earlier this year. However, the Pentagon took only took $156 million from the F-35A—the Air Force version—for the wall.
The money included in the discretionary spending portion of the HEALS act, as the Senate Republicans call their rescue proposal, isn’t to replenish the funds taken for the wall, said a Shelby aide who asked not to be named to discuss the reasoning behind the funding which hasn’t been made public.
Rather, the $686 million are for up to six F-35 A aircraft, or half of the planes the Air Force included on its supplemental list for fiscal 2021, according to the aide.
The money was needed in part to maintain a lower cost for the aircraft and in part to sustain the defense industrial base and skilled jobs in the national security industry, the aide added.
Funding for the planes, as well as up to $8 billion in other weapons programs money, was a priority for Republicans lawmakers and the goal was to provide additional resources through targeted efforts for the defense industrial base, the aide said.
“The fact that so little attention is going to the extra Pentagon cash is a travesty,” Steve Ellis, president of Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in an e-mail. “Fighting against people’s unemployment benefits and cash for small business while lining the pockets of defense contractors is ridiculous.”
Defense companies have been doing “relatively fine in the midst of the pandemic,” Ellis said. “They got themselves declared essential and are at work. There is plenty of funding in the regular Pentagon budget and these supplemental bills are about a lifeline to help people and companies get through not about making them whole or better off.”
In addition to the $686 million, the bill includes another $20 million buried in a section on Air Force Research and Development for integration on the F-35 of the Lockheed stealthy Joint Air-To-Surface Standoff Missile, or Jassm, built at its Troy facility in Shelby’s home state. With a $20 million investment, “If monthly SNAP benefits were increased by 15%, more than 133,000 kids could receive that additional benefit for 6 months,” Jorss said.
Asked how the $686 million would be spent, Air Force spokeswoman Laura McAndrews said in an email: “The impacts of COVID and subsequent fiscal uncertainty on production, development, and sustainment for the F-35 program require additional review to determine the best use of any additional resources.’’
The Pentagon’s F-35 program office said it didn’t have any other details to add to the Air Force’s response. “It is their matter to discuss,” Brandi Schiff, a spokeswoman for the F-35 program office, said in an email.
A Democratic Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said that neither the Air Force nor the Office of the Secretary of Defense provided the appropriations panel with an estimate of Covid-19 impacts on the F-35 program.
The Shelby aide said the addition of six F-35As from the unfunded priorities list doesn’t preclude the Appropriations panel from including more when it drafts the fiscal 2021 defense spending measure. The House has already passed its version of spending legislation (H.R. 7617), which would fund 91 F-35 planes, or 12 more than officially requested, but the boost doesn’t include the Air Force version.