Joint Chiefs chairman raises concerns about cost of three F-35 models

The new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Thursday cast new doubt on the troubled F-35 fighter program, saying fielding three variants could prove too expensive.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, just weeks into the job of the military’s top general, told the House Armed Services Committee he is committed to a “fifth-generation fighter” — but he did not refer to the F-35 specifically.

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Dempsey then questioned the cost of the current plans, under which the Pentagon is building three variants for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and a list of foreign partners.

He told the committee he is “concerned about the three variants,” questioning whether, as annual Defense Department budgets shrink, the military “can afford all three.”

“Three variants creates some fiscal challenges for us,” Dempsey said bluntly.

The remark set off a small firestorm among defense observers on Twitter.

“Ahh, the irony,” tweeted Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Senate defense staffer now with the Heritage Foundation. “[Three] variants of one ‘Joint’ Strike Fighter was created to save $$. Now, Dempsey says we basically can't afford it.”

In an email to The Hill, Eaglen predicted one of the program’s three fighter models likely will meet the budgetary ax.

“Gen. Dempsey's tepid endorsement of the [F-35] today bodes very ill for the program's stability,” Eaglen wrote. “His warning that the three variants are unaffordable means the death of one variant is much more likely or the overall buy will be reduced in the 2013 budget — or both.

Right now, program managers, contractors and members are surely scrambling over the news,” Eaglen said.

If current plans are salvaged, the Air Force would get a model that would take off and land on ground runways, the Navy would get a model designed for an aircraft carrier, and the Marines would get a model to take off and land vertically on its large-deck amphibious ships.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, at the same hearing, had warmer words for the F-35, calling it a “remarkable plane” that “we absolutely need.”

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates late last year placed the Marines’ version in a two-year probation period due to technical problems.

Panetta explained his view of the probation policy, saying Pentagon officials just want to make sure the variant’s test period goes well.

“If it performs well, it will move on,” Panetta said.

Pentagon officials are working with the military's F-35 program office and prime contractor Lockheed Martin to bring down the program's estimated $385 billion price tag.

The cost of each F-35 jet, short of program changes, would be $103 million, Christine Fox, director of the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, told a Senate panel this summer.

Lawmakers are increasingly skeptical about the F-35 program, largely due to technical issues that are creating new delays and cost spikes.

For instance, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) often points out that, initially, the Pentagon intended each plane to cost $69 million.

The Pentagon scored praise from Capitol Hill after negotiating a tougher deal with Lockheed for the latest batch of jets that featured a smaller price tag than under previous contracts.

But months later, some of that goodwill was eroded when the department notified lawmakers in mid-July that the first 28 F-35s would come in at $771 million above cost projections.

Meantime, in the debate about how to implement the $350 billion in Defense budget cuts ordered by the August debt deal, some in Washington have called for military pay and benefits reform.

An internal Pentagon panel has said those programs are driving the department toward a fiscal cliff.

Panetta has said reforming those programs must be on the table, but he says any changes must be done delicately.

Dempsey took a hard line on Thursday against reforming military retiree pension plans.

The new chairman said military pension programs “need to be different than any other.” That’s because of factors like war deployments, military members and their families are forced to move around every few years, and military spouses sometimes cannot find work, Dempsey said.

A day earlier, Panetta vowed to ensure existing members of the military who deploy often are grandfathered into any pay and benefits reform plan.

HASC Vice Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) asked Panetta whether President Obama opposes deeper military budget cuts that would be set in motion if the supercommittee fails to find $1.5 trillion in new federal spending cuts.

“He does,” the Defense secretary responded.

Finally, Panetta announced at the hearing he was setting the Pentagon on a faster path to have its financial books audited.

“I have directed the department to cut in half the time it will take to achieve audit readiness for the Statement of Budgetary Resources, so that in 2014 we will have the ability to conduct a full budget audit," Panetta told lawmakers.

The previous goal was 2017.

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