Hardly a month goes by without news of some preposterous new malfunction on the well-known F-35 fighter jet manufactured by Lockheed Martin.*
Critics often point to these episodes as clear evidence that the plane is a colossal waste of money and an abject failure.
But within the company, the program has a much better reputation. Internally, the F-35 is regarded as one of Lockheed’s greatest achievements in terms of marketing, engineering, and even ethics. Lockheed insiders view the F-35 as a revolutionary product, a weapon finally suited for the uniquely small foreign policy challenges of the 21st century.
To understand this disconnect, one must look to the context in which the F-35 emerged. A close reading of the history suggests the program is not the boondoggle as critics suggest, but rather a figurative coups.
For years, Lockheed Martin has been the world leader in weapons sales, racking up billions of dollars in revenue each year. The company seems to have mastered the complicated mix of engineering and lobbying required to succeed in the industry, and the shareholders have enjoyed the benefits.
But behind the soaring stock price and consistent year-over-year results, company executives realized there were significant human costs of their success. The problem was their weapons worked, perhaps too well–against combatants and civilians alike.
When the US military inevitably killed civilians or occupied a country aided by Lockheed’s technology, far more people would turn against the US and plot attacks against US citizens. The phenomenon is well-known in defense and intelligence circles as “blowback”. One famous US general also described it as “insurgent math”, where each incident of collateral damage creates far more terrorists than were killed in the initial strike–creating a self-perpetuating and futile cycle.
This process was good for business by establishing an inexhaustible source of demand for weapons. But it also jeopardized American lives. For many at the company, this was a bridge too far.
“We just wanted to profit off the US taxpayer by selling the government weapons it didn’t need,” one anonymous Lockheed executive told The Daily Face Palm, adding that he was trying to make a dishonest living like anyone else. “But we didn’t want to get our fellow Americans killed.”
This created a dilemma for the leadership of Lockheed. On the one hand, most of their business model relied on government weapons contracts; their shareholders and employees were counting on them to remain profitable. On the other, it was increasingly obvious that their products were having the opposite of the intended effect–they were not making Americans safer.
Due to its large size and specialization, the company could not realistically change direction and get out of the defense business altogether. Such a drastic move would have caused job losses in every single congressional district in the United States.
Instead, the company began to brainstorm ways it could retain its defense contract profits while limiting civilian casualties.
One of the first ideas proposed was the idea of “surgical strikes” and “smart bombs”. However, these were soon dismissed as simple “marketing BS” according to the Lockheed executive, who participated in the discussions. “Turns out foreign civilians don’t care if their family members were mistakenly killed by a smart bomb or a dumb one.”
But eventually, the discussions produced a breakthrough. Lockheed’s leadership realized that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “the US doesn’t have any real enemies anymore. So why does it need real weapons?”
This epiphany ultimately shaped the F-35 program as a compromise between Lockheed’s desire to retain corporate welfare and its goal not to endanger Americans.
To all outside appearances, the F-35 looked like any other major weapons program–huge price tag, cost overruns, delays, massive profits, some sick fonts, etc. But there was one key difference–it was completely impotent.
“The program truly is a model for the future,” the executive told the DFP. “The F-35 couldn’t kill civilians even if it wanted to. Hell, some days it can barely fly.”
“That means Americans are safe, and so is our bottom line. What’s not to like?”
*This is a satirical post. The quotes and sources cited above are fictional, but we’d like to assume they are more or less reflective of reality.