Joint Strike Fighter program approaches its first dogfight

A Senate panel’s decision to cut significant funds from the Pentagon’s most expensive program to date, the Joint Strike Fighter, could create a maelstrom in the Pentagon and potentially during conference deliberations with the House over the 2007 defense authorization act.

The Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), slashed $1.2 billion from the Pentagon’s request for the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), a multiservice, multinational program.

Even though it is early in the authorization and appropriations process, several sources have indicated that the Pentagon is bound to lead a fight to restore the money because the cuts affect three services, the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, each expecting its specific version of the Joint Strike Fighter.

Lockheed Martin is the contractor for the aircraft program, which is estimated to cost approximately $276.5 billion. The United Kingdom is the main partner on the program, with seven other nations participating.

McCain’s panel recommended cutting $870 million from the procurement funds for five of the Air Force’s JSF aircraft in fiscal 2007.

The panel also recommended cutting $245 million, which makes up the entire so-called advance procurement funding for eight of the Marine Corps’s short-takeoff and vertical-landing version of the aircraft, slated for 2008, as well $85 million of the Air Force’s advance procurement request of $145 million for eight aircraft in 2008.

Advance procurement ensures that some necessary components, parts and material are made available before the Pentagon makes the request to buy a certain number of aircraft in a specific budget year.

If the Airland decision passes muster with the entire Armed Service’s Committee, chaired by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), and on the Senate floor, it will complicate matters when the defense authorization bill goes to conference with the House Armed Services Committee. The full Senate panel is expected to consider the bill today.

The House panel, which has marked up its version of the 2007 defense authorization bill, has been more generous with the Joint Strike Fighter.

The House panel cut $241 million from the advance procurement of 16 aircraft in 2008 because of concerns over the fact that the research and development for the fighter jet was too concurrent with the actual buying plan for the aircraft.

But closing a gap of almost $1 billion would be almost impossible, defense sources argue.

John A. Smith, communications manager of the F-35 JSF program, said, “We are very early in the budget process with various proposals concerning funding for the F-35 and other programs, along with counterproposals by legislators in both the U.S. House and Senate, as is the normal process of the U.S. federal budget cycle. It is a very fluid process that will be worked as it is each year in the U.S. Congress. Only time and the process will tell us what will end up in the final FY ’07 defense budget."

The House panel fully funded the procurement of aircraft in 2007, while McCain’s panel did not. While the House funded the advance procurement of five aircraft in 2008, the Senate funded no aircraft.