Pentagon probing nuclear F-35 delay

The Defense Department is examining how long a variant of the F-35 fighter that is nuclear-capable will be delayed, military officials told lawmakers this week.

The Pentagon has launched a “technical baseline review” to determine how an expected two-year delay for the entire program will impact the delivery schedule, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. William Chambers, assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.

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That study “will give us a new time line” for how far behind schedule the broader schedule slip will place the nuclear F-35, Chambers told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee this week.

To bridge the gap to the date when the nuclear-armed F-35s arrive in the service's fleet, officials plan to keep more of existing F-15 and F-16 fighters flying longer than initially planned, Chambers said.

The additional maintenance and parts to keep those jets in the air will bring new costs.

In recent years, software problems, design flaws and testing delays have hamstrung F-35 development and delayed its fielding, according to a late 2010 report from the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation.

Senior DoD brass in January, spurred by a new batch of technical problems, announced the program would be delayed yet again.

They added $4 billion to the entire F-35 program’s design and development phase, and altered the tri-service program’s purchasing schedule.

Those moves were the latest changes to a program that, for decades, will constitute the vast majority of the U.S. fighter jet fleet. The Air Force, Navy and Marines are slated to buy around 2,440 models; U.S. allies say they will buy around 750 more.

While Chambers said an exact length of the nuclear-capable variant’s delay is not yet known, he told the panel “not every part of the program will slip two years.”

And though software development issues have plagued the program, Chambers said the nuclear version “is the first batch of software after the development ... software.”