DOD: Demons of cost, weight, engine haunt F-35 fighter program

Pressed about the F-35 fighter program Wednesday by House appropriators, Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter described an airframe still battling weight, engine and cost issues.

One day after House and Senate appropriators revealed that their 2011 budget deal halves the Obama administration’s $4 billion F-35 funding request, Carter defended the troubled fighter development effort.

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Carter told the House Appropriations Committee he is “more confident” about the F-35 program — the largest weapons acquisition effort in U.S. history — than he was one year ago.

One reason is the program’s new executive officer, Navy Vice Adm. David Venlet, whom Carter dubbed “really excellent.” Venlet became program chief last year after Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired then-program manager Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Heinz.

Venlet has done “something previously not done” by providing senior Pentagon officials with cost estimates drawn up by the program office. Under Heinz, officials were relying on estimates by another Pentagon office.

The DOD buying boss said his newfound confidence also stems from a special team he assembled last year to scrub every aspect of the F-35 program, asking questions such as “Why are we doing this?” on deep-in-the-weeds aspects of the initiative.

That explanation came after Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the panel’s ranking member, asked him to describe why, after yet another program overhaul, DOD officials think “you have it right this time.”

When pressed by House appropriators, Carter acknowledged the program continues to battle several demons.

One is the weight of a version of the F-35 that will take off and land vertically. Gates earlier this year placed the F-35B variant on two years’ probation as technical issues continued to force up its price and stretch its schedule.

Carter revealed during the hearing that a primary issue with the B model is the strength of a door that opens on the rear of the fuselage when the aircraft takes off or lands vertically. The current door is not sturdy enough, program officials have learned, causing vibration problems. 

Program officials are now working to design a strengthened door — but it will add weight to an airframe that has battled its weight for years, Carter told the panel. It will take additional time to get it right, he added.

Other issues are ongoing development and cost matters with its primary power plant, being built by Pratt & Whitney.

Dicks said he supported the Obama administration’s desire to terminate a second engine for the F-35 fleet, but told Carter it is unclear just how development of the primary power plant is going.

“I am not happy with the cost performance so far,” Carter said, adding Pratt and F-35 program officials need to pare those costs.

Attempting to strike an upbeat note, Carter pointed out the Pratt engine’s cost growth is less than the “average cost growth” for the rest of the F-35 program.

The acquisition chief defended the decision to end the second-engine effort, saying Pentagon officials “can’t make the numbers work” to “justify” the multibillion-dollar price tag. That decision was a “cold, analytical judgment,” he said.

Gates has said continuing the second engine program would “waste” $3 billion. Carter said the “cold” analysis showed there is no way those monies would “be paid back,” leading him to determine the alternate engine should be canceled.

Alternate-engine supporters, including manufacturing team Rolls-Royce and GE, say it will save big money over two decades and provide a backup power plant should the Pratt engine fleet fall ill.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) questioned the alternate-engine decision, saying it is needed to put pressure on Pratt and to inject “competition and accountability” into the program. The second engine, if kept alive by lawmakers in the 2012 defense budget cycle and eventually fielded, would bring some jobs to Virginia.

In a twist, Moran revealed House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) plans to approve funding for the alternative engine in the House version of 2012 defense authorization legislation. A spokesman for McKeon did not reply to an inquiry seeking comment.