Pentagon buying chief: F-35 'unaffordable' without changes

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter told senators Thursday that the latest cost estimate for the F-35 fighter program — which has nearly doubled from initial targets — would make the fleet of war planes unaffordable.

The Pentagon last year examined whether there was a "better alternative" to completing the triple-variant F-35 project, but found none, Carter said. "But it has to be affordable. Right now, it is not," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Pentagon's top weapons buyer said the program currently has "an unacceptably high acquisition bill."

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Pentagon officials are working with the military's program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin to bring down the program's estimated $385 billion price tag. The Pentagon negotiated a tougher deal with Lockheed for the latest batch of jets that featured a smaller price tag than under previous contracts.

The cost of each F-35 jet, short of program changes, would be $103 million, according to Christine Fox, director of the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee's ranking member, noted earlier in a hearing on the program that, initially, the Pentagon intended each plane to cost $69 million.

Senior Pentagon officials earlier this year placed the Marine Corp's version of the F-35 program on two years of probation to due ongoing design and development flaws. They also cut the number of F-35s the Navy and Air Force intend to purchase, and shook up the program's production schedule.

In written testimony submitted to the panel, Pentagon and Lockheed officials presented an upbeat assessment of revised program plans. McCain and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman, opened the session with statements critical of the program's history of schedule delays, developmental setbacks and cost spikes.