By John T. Bennett - 05/19/11 11:00 PM EDT
Senators issued tough warnings to Pentagon and Lockheed Martin officials Thursday over the F-35 fighter program, which is on track to cost $152 billion more than initially projected.
Frustrated by schedule delays and cost breaches for a fighter once billed as a bargain, Senate Armed Services Committee members took a hard line — even threatening to pull the panel’s decades of support for the program.
“We cannot sacrifice other important acquisitions in the DOD investment portfolio to pay for this capability,” Levin said.
The committee’s ranking member, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), called the program’s history of developmental setbacks, schedule delays and cost spikes “truly troubling.”
McCain panned both the Pentagon and prime contractor Lockheed Martin, which he said has done an “abysmal job” living up to its promises.
Zeroing in on the project’s cost increases, McCain noted each F-35 was supposed to cost around $69 million. But after years of design problems and other issues, each model has a $103 million price tag.
Without changes to pare costs, completing the program as it is currently structured would cost $385 billion, McCain said, up from an initial target of $233 billion.
As the U.S. focuses on getting its fiscal house in order — and on making big cuts to federal spending — “no program should be expected to be continued” when its expected cost has ballooned by “80 percent,” McCain said.
Other panel members joined in, with Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) going so far as asking Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter: “At what point do we cut the cord and go in a different direction?”
Several senators even floated the idea of pursuing “an alternative” to the troubled fighter.
In a report released at the outset of the hearing, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also was critical of the effort.
The program “has not fully demonstrated that the aircraft design is stable, manufacturing processes are mature and the system is reliable,” the auditors said. “Engineering drawings are still being released to the manufacturing floor; design changes continue at higher rates than desired. More changes are expected as testing accelerates.”
Senators were shocked when Christine Fox, director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, said the cost to operate the F-35 would be 33 percent higher than one of the jets it will eventually replace, the F-16.
The Pentagon last year examined whether there was a “better alternative” to completing the triple-variant F-35 project, but found none, Carter said.
The Navy has purchased additional Boeing-made F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters in recent years — but only as a hedge against F-35 delays. And while Pentagon officials say the Air Force’s F-16s, also made by Lockheed, will last longer than first thought, buying more of those jets is not under consideration.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) sounded frustrated at the hearing but agreed with Carter that the program must go on.
“Have to keep pounding away until we get this thing right,” Chambliss said. “This thing has got to succeed.”
“But [the F-35 fleet] has to be affordable. Right now, it is not,” Carter said.
The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer said the program has “an unacceptably high acquisition bill.”
Pentagon officials are working with the military’s program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin to bring down the program’s estimated price tag.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) urged Carter to consider removing some of the fighter’s subsystems that are proving most costly to develop.
The Pentagon’s buying chief said he thinks that can be avoided, saying he does not want to “dumb down the plane.”
“I believe we can manage out a substantial amount” from the costs associated with building the jets, Carter said.
To that end, GAO concluded “substantial improvements in factory throughput and the global supply chain are needed.”
The U.S. is slated to buy 2,443 F-35s, with American allies purchasing 600 to 700 models.
But unless costs can be trimmed, Carter made clear the Pentagon and its partners will not be able to afford the jets.
Senior Pentagon officials earlier this year placed the Marine Corps’s version of the F-35 program on two years of probation due to ongoing design and development flaws. They also cut the number of F-35s the Navy and Air Force intend to purchase, and shook up the program’s production schedule.
Some of the issues that continue to plague the jet are software development and a lift issue that has caused structural strains on test models, said Michael Gilmore, DOD’s director of operational test and evaluation.
Pentagon and Lockheed officials do not yet “have an answer on whether a structural change is needed,” Gilmore told the panel.
Such an alteration would bring additional cost spikes, Gilmore said.