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.

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Sen. John McCainJohn McCainOvernight Defense: Congress overrides Obama 9/11 veto | Pentagon breathes easy after funding deal | More troops heading to Iraq McCain comments won't derail Bergdahl case Senators already eyeing changes to 9/11 bill after veto override 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 LevinThe Fed and a return to banking simplicity What Our presidential candidates can learn from Elmo Zumwalt Will there be a 50-50 Senate next year? 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.