Sens. McCain, Levin: Premature F-35 training may cause ‘serious mishap’

Senate Armed Services leaders are urging Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to examine whether the the F-35 fighter is safe enough for pilots to begin flight training.

At issue is whether pilots can conduct what the Pentagon calls “unmonitored flight training” in the conventional take off-and-landing (CTOL) version of the fighter jet. Pointing to an internal Pentagon assessment, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Ranking Member John McCain (R-Ariz.) think the training flights should be postponed.

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“We are troubled by serious concerns that the Director [of] Operational Testing and Evaluation, Dr. Michael Gilmore, raised in an internal memorandum on Oct. 21, 2011, about plans to begin training flights at Eglin Air Force Base,” Levin and McCain wrote in a Dec. 6 letter to Panetta.

The unmonitored training flights were slated to begin at the Florida base soon.

Gilmore concluded that “starting to train on the CTOL before it demonstrates maturity exposes the [F-35] program to the risk of new failures being discovered during unmonitored flight training and, therefore, the increased possibility of a ‘a serious mishap,’” the powerful senators told Panetta.  

“Dr. Gilmore cited several safety-related shortfalls and highlighted the safely-of-!light risk of Hying unmonitored production aircraft with less than half the test hours accumulated in previous programs,” McCain and Levin wrote. “Dr. Gilmore asserts that starting unmonitored Slight training at such a low level of testing hours presents inherent risks, regardless of the skill level of the training pilots or limitations placed on the training mission envelope.”

The letter marks the second time this week that McCain has lashed out at the F-35 program, on Monday calling it a “tragedy” and urging that prime contractor Lockheed Martin be held more accountable for problems and cost spikes.

Spokesmen for the F-35 program office and Panetta had not yet responded to inquiries seeking a response.

In the internal Pentagon memo, Gilmore recommended conducting additional test flights to resolve outstanding safety issues on the CTOL variant, which the U.S. Air Force and several allied militaries plan to buy and operate.

“He offered the option of switching flight training, at least initially, to Edwards Air Force Base [in California] where the Air Force is currently conducting its test flights of the [F-35] — if there is an urgency to begin such training sooner than that,” the lawmakers wrote.

McCain and Levin revealed F-35 program officials met with committee aides recently about these issues, that briefing failed to “satisfactorily establish how the path forward accounts for the fundamental lack of maturity of the air system,” McCain and Levin wrote.

“In our view, a viable response must do more than assert that experienced pilots and limited training goals mitigate risk,” they bluntly told Panetta.

The senators asked that Panetta “review this matter and conclude to your own satisfaction that the approach proposed by the [program office] and the Air Force will ensure the safely and adequacy of CTOL training when it begins and provide the committee with the basis for your conclusion.”

McCain and Levin also raise concerns that the fighter appears unable to “meet many operational requirements.”

The SASC leaders ask that Panetta explain the Pentagon plan for resolving the F-35’s problems and his personal assessment about whether that plan “is realistic.”

They also ask the secretary to provide an estimate of the costs of remedying any outstanding ailments. Notably, the lawmakers also want to know “to what extent the prime contractor or the taxpayer would be required to pay those costs.”

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To that end, in negotiations for the latest two batches of F-35s, Pentagon officials have promised Congress they are seeking terms that would hold Lockheed Martin more accountable for problems than under past contracts.

This has not been the best week for the F-35 program — thanks almost exclusively to the Senate’s Arizona maverick.

On Monday, McCain called the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program a "scandal" and "tragedy," and demanded greater accountability for the weapons system's maker, Lockheed Martin.

"The Joint Strike Fighter program has been both a scandal and a tragedy," said McCain from the Senate floor. "[W]e are saddled with a program has little to show for itself after 10 years and $56 billion in taxpayer investment that has produced less than 20 test and operational aircraft."

In his speech McCain sketched the 10-year history of the embattled program, describing mechanical problems and budget overruns that have plagued development.

The senior senator from Arizona also argued Lockheed Martin has charged the U.S. taxpayer vast sums for fixing problems that were in fact its own fault or that should have been included in original budget estimates.

"Lockheed Martin must be held increasingly accountable for cost overruns that come as a result of wringing out necessary changes in the design and manufacturing process for this incredibly expensive aircraft," said McCain.

“McCain in hot pursuit of F-35 program kill,” August Cole, an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank, tweeted this week. “He and powerful staff, once locked on, won't give up.

“Future of U.S. tactical airpower is tied to politics, not strategy: does the F-35 ... have more friends or enemies in Congress in 2012?” Cole tweeted.

The Air Force and Marine Corps are pushing hard for their models of the F-35. Neither service has another tactical fighter in their long-term plans, making it unclear what else they would buy to replace their aging fighters.

While Navy leaders publicly say they are committed to the aircraft carrier-based version, defense insiders say the sea service would be happy buying many more — and cheaper — F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. That would be a big win for Boeing, which is the prime contractor of that fighter jet.

--Josiah Ryan contributed