House mulls changes to F-35 after report

The House is expected to consider changes to the F-35 fighter program as questions swirl about the jet’s cost and long-term viability. 

The chamber is expected to consider a number of measures related to the F-35 during debate on the 2012 defense authorization bill. 

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Those votes will come just days after conflicting assessments were given on the status of testing and the expected costs of operating the jets.

Prime contractor Lockheed Martin — while acknowledging that challenges remain — last week sounded upbeat about the often-delayed and altered testing of the three variants of the war plane. 

“Early testing has allowed us to understand our main technical challenges and develop resolution paths for them,” said Tom Burbage, Lockheed’s vice president for F-35 program integration. “The performance of the [vertical takeoff-and-landing] variant in flight test has been very good since November.”

Test models of that version of the jet, the F-35B, “are all performing vertical landings and we are on track for shipboard testing this fall,” Burbage told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

What’s more, testing of the F-35’s complex software and sensor suites “have been exceptional,” the Lockheed VP said.

But the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) appraisal of the program was much more downbeat.

Michael Sullivan of the GAO told the Senate panel “testing has been slow and has not demonstrated that the aircraft will work in its intended environment.”

Sullivan said “only about 4 percent” of the F-35’s attributes have been verified.

“The pace of flight testing accelerated significantly in 2010, but overall progress is still much below plans forecasted several years ago,” Sullivan told the panel. “Software development — essential for achieving about 80 percent of the [F-35] functionally — is significantly behind schedule as it enters its most challenging phase.”

The program continues to be plagued by “the continuing effects from late delivery of test aircraft,” he said. Only about 10 percent of a planned 50,000 “flight test points have been completed,” Sullivan added.

House members likely will vote this week on a number of F-35 amendments.

One is an amendment from Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), which he promised to bring up during the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the legislation.

That amendment would take $380.6 million from the F-35 fighter program, while also reducing the planned buy of the Marines’ version of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 in 2012 from six to four.

The Cooper amendment would use those dollars to buy parts for and conduct maintenance work on Navy and Marine Corps platforms, things he said those two services “have been begging for.”

In Cooper’s mind, as he explained during the May 11 markup, trimming the planned buy would “send a message to the contractor to get the program back on track,” Cooper said. He said the F-35B variant faces daunting engineering and mechanical issues.

F-35 proponents have countered by saying reducing the buy would drive the costs of producing each plane.

As lawmakers mull that and other F-35 amendments, they have to consider which assessment of the F-35 program is correct: Lockheed’s or the GAO’s.

“The truth about the current test program is probably somewhere in between,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group.

Still, “it sounds like progress is being made,” Aboulafia said Monday.

“This program has always had its enemies. The GAO, however, is less of an enemy and more of a very conservative watchdog,” Aboulafia said. “They don’t like a schedule that’s at all aggressive or concurrent, and always prefer a slower approach. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”

During the same Senate hearing last week, Pentagon officials revealed that they expect the cost of operating the more than  2,400 F-35s they plan to buy will exceed two war planes it will replace and match that of another.

“Our analysis indicates the costs to operate and sustain” the F-35 will be “about the same as the F-15C/D, and more than the F-16 and F-18,” Christine Fox, director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, said.

“Given the significant increase in capability, it is not unreasonable that [F-35] costs more to operate and sustain than some legacy aircraft,” Fox said. “However, the fact that it will cost about 33 percent more per flight hour to operate [F-35] relative to the F-16 and F-18 aircraft it is replacing gives the department a significant bill.”

Fox said her office and the Pentagon’s top acquisition shop are jointly working to address sustainment and operating costs, aiming to “get these operating and support costs down before the aircraft are fielded in numbers.”

During the Thursday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, several panel members said they are shocked the new plane will come with a larger operating price tag than two of the jets it will take the place of.

But Aboulafia said he was not surprised by that revelation.

“As for operating costs, they were always bound to be higher than for some older aircraft, just by virtue of the F-35’s size and complexity,” the Teal Group analyst said. “The F-16, for example, has always been quite a bargain in terms of price tag and maintenance costs. … It was bound to cost more to operate.”


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