Cerabino: Who pays for billion-dollar bomber? Florida retirees

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By Frank Cerabino
Palm Beach Post columnist

The big economic news for Florida this week is that Northrop Grumman got awarded the contract for the Air Force’s new long range strike bomber.

Florida taxpayers have been paying corporate welfare, er … I mean, participating in economic partnerships … with Northrop Grumman in Melbourne in the hopes that the defense contractor would win the bomber project, and then be grateful enough to drop some of the golden crumbs on us.

So the news that Northrop Grumman beat out the team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin for a contract that’s expected to be about $55 billion was greeted as a kind of victory for Florida by lawmakers, who are already tallying the hypothetical 1,500 high-paying jobs coming to Florida’s Space Coast because of it.

And funding the program for a new bat-wing bomber to replace the B-2 stealth bomber was made more secure this week by a budget deal that would jettison the military’s mandatory spending cuts as part of the so-called sequester and raise the cap on military spending by $25 billion for each of the next two years.

So good news all around, right? Well, maybe not.

Not if you’re a Florida retiree. Your part in freeing up more military spending for the multi-billion-dollar bomber project is to accept some modest cuts in Medicare and Social Security. And you probably won’t be around when, and if, this new bomber ever gets airborne.

Just look at the bomber it’s replacing, the B-2 stealth bomber, which was built by Northrop Grumman in the mid-1980s for an advertised price of $441 million per plane. We were supposed to get 132 of the B-2s, but ended up with 21 of them, due in part, to cost overruns that quickly made the price tag of each plane $2 billion.

The B-2 was conceived as a nuclear-capable bomber able to evade radar detection and destroy targets well inside the borders of distant countries.

It turned out to be a temperamental aircraft that couldn’t be left out in the rain, and each one required so much maintenance, 50 maintenance workers per plane, that at any given time more than half of the B-2s are grounded.

When they do fly, it costs $135,000 for every flight hour. And now it has come time to replace the under-used and over-priced B-2 with another stealth bomber also capable of bombing distant lands.

You’d think that our misadventures in the Middle East has made it abundantly clear that bombing people we don’t like in distant lands is a futile, and ultimately, harmful way to conduct foreign policy.

And we’re certainly not going to nuke China. (Who’s going to make our iPhone?)

The roll out of the new bomber sounds like a rerun of the B-2 sales pitch. We’re supposed to get 100 of the yet-to-be-named new bombers at a cost of $550 million per plane. But I wouldn’t count on it.

These defense contracts tend to start out as wishful thinking.

Take the F-35 fighter jet, a project that is $200 billion over budget and 15 years in the making. And yet, the jet it produced has been unable to outperform in mock dogfights the F-16 it is replacing, even with the F-35 pilots wearing high-tech $400,000 helmets.

The F-35’s got funded by spreading the subcontracting work to Florida and 45 other states. Legislators, more interested in creating jobs in their own districts, kept going along for the ride and demonstrating their fiscal conservatism in other areas.

Lockheed Martin hails the F-35 for creating 133,000 jobs both directly and indirectly, calling it “the single largest job generator in the Department of Defense program budget.”

But if you do the math, those 133,000 jobs for a $400 billion project comes out to about $3 million taxpayer dollars per job. That’s a tremendous opportunity cost for a glitchy new weapon that may not pan out.

And if we’ve got that kind of money to throw around, it makes it all the more obscene to consider squeezing Medicare recipients — half of whom live on $24,150 a year or less — or reducing Social Security benefits for the disabled.

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