Sen. Chambliss urges Panetta to avoid cuts to F-35 in preview of fall debate

A senior GOP senator has asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to resist “draconian” cuts to the F-35 fighter program, warning the U.S. would risk losing its aerial advantage in war.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Panetta, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said he is worried military officials will target the F-35 for cuts “in order to meet arithmetic targets mandated by a draconian budget-cutting exercise.”

Chambliss, a Senate Armed Services Committee member and one of the Senate’s Gang of Six that worked to reduce budget deficits, acknowledged the U.S. faces “dire fiscal circumstances.”

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But the pro-Defense senator said he believes the F-35 fleet’s advanced systems and design will be too important in future wars to end the program or truncate the Pentagon's planned fleet size, which is slated to breach 4,000 planes.

By altering the program, the most expensive in U.S. military history, Washington risks “ceding tactical air superiority” to other nations that are developing their own advanced fighters, Chambliss wrote.

In pleading with Panetta to avoid cutting one cent from the F-35 program, Chambliss offers a glimpse of the tough budgetary fights in store this November, when a congressional superpanel created in the debt-ceiling deal must either find trillions in federal spending cuts or face $600 billion in national security cuts through 2023.

That would be in addition to $350 billion in security cuts mandated under the same August agreement.

Congressional defense hawks like Chambliss are sure to flood the inboxes of Panetta and his top deputies with letters making the case for weapon programs that touch their states and districts.

With suppliers of parts and subsystems spread across the nation, changes to — or the termination of — a major Defense Department program can mean job losses in multiple states.

Defense industry officials and their allies on the Hill already have begun tapping this drum, and the beat will only get louder as the supercommittee begins debating on where to cut.

Chambliss finds himself in familiar territory in lobbying a Defense secretary against ending or truncating an advanced fighter program in which Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor.

When former Pentagon chief Robert Gates ordered the F-22 fighter program be capped at around 180 models, Chambliss unsuccessfully lobbied hard to change his mind.

Lockheed has a large presence in Georgia and a long relationship with Chambliss. The senator has received nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions from Lockheed’s political action committee or individuals from the company since 1994, according to opensecrets.com.

The Georgia senator wrote that he is “dismayed” that some DOD officials have “an apparent lack of commitment” to the F-35 program.

That is an apparent reaction to recent media reports that Navy Under Secretary Robert Work has asked Navy and Marine Corps officials to report back on whether their services could make due with fewer models of the F-35’s aircraft carrier-based and vertical-take-off-and-landing models than they now plan to purchase.

The Air Force is buying the conventional model, and its leaders say they have no other option but to buy the full planned allotment. The Marines have the same view, with the added twist that their model allows the service to operate off its big-deck amphibious ships, which Marine brass say is key to retaining America’s fast-reaction amphibious force.

The Navy already has bought more models of the Boeing-made F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter as a hedge against ongoing F-35 program delays.

Some defense sources say the Navy would be fine with paring its F-35 fleet while buying more of the cheaper Super Hornets.

That idea, however, is opposed by the Air Force, Marines and the program's international partners because fewer Navy models would drive up the per-plane price tag.