Arms industry darling hosts event for GOP candidates

F-22 Raptor fighter jets of the 95th Fighter Squadron © Wolfgang Rattay
The Heritage Foundation’s political branch is hosting Republican presidential contenders at an event in South Carolina, as revelations of the think-tank’s connections to US weapons manufacturers raise eyebrows.

South Carolina is an early primary state and a major stop for candidates hoping to secure the GOP nomination ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Friday’s forum in Greenville is organized by Heritage Action for America, a political action committee backed by the nonprofit Heritage Foundation. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Senator and current Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint will be hosting the event, together with Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham, The Hill reported.

Six of the candidates will be absent from the forum. Former governors Jim Gilmore and George Pataki, as well as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, could not pass the threshold of 1 percent voter support. Governor John Kasich of Ohio and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee declined their invitations, citing campaign events elsewhere. Donald Trump, currently the most popular contender, bowed out at the last moment to attend to a business deal.

Established in 1973, the Heritage Foundation is a leading conservative think-tank in Washington. Its tax-exempt status prevents it from lobbying for legislation or candidates, however. That is why the Foundation spun off Heritage Action in 2010.

Emails recently leaked online show a cozy relationship between Heritage and major US weapons manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. In 2008 and 2009, Heritage officials there were at least 15 meetings between Heritage officials and representatives of Lockheed Martin, including one with the senior Lockheed lobbyist Bill Inglee, The Intercept reported.

Vice president of the foundation’s Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, James Jay Carafano, even traveled to the Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta, Georgia, for a tour of the facilities where the F-22 fighters was being produced. At the time, Heritage was strongly urging the US government to continue funding the F-22 program, against the wishes of both the Air Force and the Pentagon. The air superiority fighter was eventually abandoned after only 187 planes were built, at the cost of $26.3 billion.

Though the Heritage Foundation does not disclose all of its corporate donations, the leaked emails indicate it received $40,000 from Lockheed Martin in 2008 alone.

The revelations could explain the GOP candidates’ insistence that the US is underfunding its military. All of the contenders expressed that belief to some degree during Wednesday night’s debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in California.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said he would end “the craziness of the sequester” to ensure more money for the military, arguing that military cutbacks have damaged US reputation around the world. Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and the only female contender for the Republican nomination, laid out a specific plan including 50 Army brigades, 36 Marine Corps battalions and up to 350 Navy ships, along with deploying missile defense systems and thousands more US troops in Europe to create "the strongest military on the face of the planet."

A recent report by the US Treasury showed that the government had raked in record tax revenue, but was still spending $530 billion more than it was bringing in. According to the same report, the Pentagon’s 2015 budget was $536 billion.