Gates picks vice admiral to run troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program

After weeks of speculation, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday picked Vice Adm. David Venlet to run the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

Venlet, a three-star officer, will need Senate confirmation for the position, which will bring more attention to the program.

Gates announced in early February that he would remove Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Heinz as manager of the JSF and replace him with a three-star officer, partly to bring more accountability to the program.

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The nomination comes as the Pentagon prepares to formally inform Congress that the cost of the F-35, the Pentagon’s largest and most expensive program to date, has increased by more than 50 percent.

The price for one F-35 fighter jet in 2001 was estimated to be $50 million. Since then, the price tag has risen to between $80 million and $95 million per plane, calculated in 2002-constant dollars. In today’s dollars, one aircraft would cost an average of $112 million, according to Michael Sullivan, the director of the acquisition team at the Government Accountability Office.

Some of the first jets are expected to cost about $205 million apiece, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Ashton Carter, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

The Pentagon in 2001 estimated the cost of one F-35 at $50.2 million for an order of 2,852 jets. In 2007, the Pentagon updated that estimate to $69.2 million for a reduced order of 2,443 jets.

Venlet is currently serving as the commander of Naval Air Systems Command.