European fiscal crisis could force Pentagon to alter F-35 plans

A handful of European nations are allied with Washington in developing three variants of the Lockheed Martin-made fighter, which is the biggest and most expensive weapon system in U.S. history.

The U.S. military is committed “to the development of the fifth-generation fighter, clearly," Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said Friday, referring to the F-35 warplane.

Dempsey said European allies’ financial woes could hinder the Pentagon’s ability to "procure it on timelines that we'd like to have.”

The chairman’s comments came at the end of a rough week for the F-35 program.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Trump scolds NATO allies over spending | Flurry of leaks worries allies | Senators rip B Army 'debacle' | Lawmakers demand hearing on Saudi arms deal The case for protecting America's intelligence agency whistleblowers Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate Intel chiefs get subpoena power in Russia probe | Trump orders probe of leaks | Lawmaker unveils 'hacking back' bill MORE (R-Ariz.) twice lashed out at the program, starting with a Monday floor speech during which he called it “a tragedy.” The Senate’s self-styled maverick also said Lockheed has ripped off U.S. taxpayers.

Two days later, a letter surfaced in which he and panel Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinDemocrats and Republicans share blame in rewriting the role of the Senate For the sake of American taxpayers, companies must pay their fair share What the Iran-Contra investigation can teach us about Russia probe MORE (D-Mich.) urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to examine whether the F-35 fighter is safe enough for pilots to begin flight training.

They cited an internal Pentagon report that concluded the conventional take-off-and-landing version is not safe enough for that testing.

“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.

Another report was delivered to acting Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall this week that recommends the Defense Department slow the rate at which will buy F-35s until more than a dozen test issues are corrected, according to media reports.

On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that Panetta remains committed to the program.