Lawmakers: Navy and Marines facing larger than expected fighter jet shortfall

The Navy and Marine Corps face a much larger shortfall of fighter jets than expected, four senior members of the House Armed Services Committee warned Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

 In a letter to Gates, the lawmakers said Pentagon assumptions of a shortfall of 100 fighter jets are “too optimistic.”

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 Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) signed the letter along with ranking Republican Rep. Buck McKeon (Calif.). Two other panel members with jurisdiction over Navy programs, Reps. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and Todd Akin (R-Mo.), also signed the letter to Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

The four lawmakers questioned the assumptions underlying the Pentagon’s calculations as well as its ability to fund efforts to tamp down the shortfall.

“We were concerned to learn that the shortfall of 100 aircraft, referenced in your testimony, is based on a number of optimistic assumptions and is only reached after several management efforts have been implemented,” the four lawmakers wrote to Gates in the March 12 letter. “Of great concern is the fact the shortfall number you mentioned is contingent on actions that are not included in either the FY 2011 budget request or the future years defense program.”

The shortfall of 100 jets comes from testimony Gates gave to the committee. He also said that number could go lower as a result of management efforts.

The lawmakers’ prodding comes as the Pentagon mulls whether to enter a new multiyear contract with Boeing for the F/A 18 E/F Super Hornets — the latest version of the carrier-based jets. Boeing has strong congressional backing for another multi-year contract. 

The Pentagon is also experiencing trouble with the high-stakes F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program — the most expensive program to date and one that Gates is banking on.

The F-35 is facing significant cost overruns and schedule delays. The F-35 is supposed to replace the older versions of the F-18. Super Hornets, the newest version of the F-18, are supposed to share carrier deck space with the F-35 until 2030.

In order to manage the looming fighter jet shortfall, the Pentagon is eyeing efforts to extend the life of 150 older Hornets and reduce the number of aircraft in expeditionary squadrons.

In their letter to Gates, House lawmakers argue that the life extension of the Hornets, estimated at $3.5 billion, is not funded in the Pentagon’s budget, while the reduction of the aircraft in expeditionary squadrons cannot be done until the demand for these aircraft diminishes in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“When combined these assumptions and unfunded levers mean that the true shortfall facing the Department of the Navy is likely to be significantly greater than 100 aircraft,” the lawmakers concluded. “The strike fighter capacity of our Navy and Marine Corps is a strategic asset that should not be allowed to wither.”