Gates tells panel delivery of F-35 remains on time

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday said the services will receive F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) on time but in smaller numbers

Gates, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Pentagon's fiscal 2011 budget request, said fewer F-35s will be produced during the initial years of production than originally anticipated, although some planes will arrive by their scheduled delivery dates.

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The first training squadron of JSFs will still arrive at Eglin Air Force Base in 2011. The Marine Corps will start receiving its version of the fighter plane in 2012; the Air Force in 2013; and the Navy in 2014, as anticipated.

Reducing the production rate during the first few years is the result of problems uncovered with the program, Gates told lawmakers.

After an investigation that lasted several weeks, Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter concluded that the program needed to be restructured, Gates said.

As part of the restructuring, the F-35 development and procurement has been slowed to stabilize the program.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s largest acquisition program. The Air Force, Navy and the Marines plan to buy 2,400 of the planes over the next 25 years.

Eight allied nations, including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, have also invested in the project. The Pentagon is requesting funds in fiscal 2011 for 42 F-35s for three services.

Frustrated with projected cost increases and development delays, Gates made the surprise announcement on Monday that he would shake up the management of the F-35 program and replace Marine Maj. Gen. David Heinz with a three-star general, a lieutenant general rank.

Heinz angered administration officials last year when he spoke of the advantages of maintaining competition for the F-35, despite the White House’s and Gates’s push to cancel an alternate engine being developed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. Pratt & Whitney builds the main F-35 engine.

Gates said on Monday that he would recommend that the president veto any defense bill that contains funds for the GE-Rolls-Royce engine.

Gates also said the Pentagon will withhold $614 million in performance fee payments from Lockheed Martin, the F-35 contractor.

In a statement issued Monday, Lockheed Martin officials said the company is “committed” to stabilizing the F-35 cost and delivering the aircraft on time.

-- This article was updated at 10:23 p.m.