Senate shrugs off F-35 grounding

Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee are brushing off the latest setback to the $400 billion and counting F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which resulted in the grounding of the military’s jet of the future.

“I just want to keep it going,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the panel. “It’s too modern to fail. If we’re going to maintain superiority over other countries, we have to have that, we can’t do without it.”

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Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) argued the engine fire that led to the grounding is a bump in the road.

“When you develop a new system like this you’re going to have hiccups,” he said.

The latest hiccup for the F-35 came on June 23 when a fire erupted aboard a jet as it prepared to take off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Late last week, the services ordered their entire existing fleet of fighters grounded until further notice, indicating a larger issue with the aircraft.

The grounding could prevent the F-35 from being showcased at air shows in the United Kingdom next week.

Development of the F-35 began in 2001, and the aircraft has since become the costliest weapons program in U.S. history. It is already seven years behind schedule and around 70 percent overbudget, despite decreased U.S. orders for the plane. The jet’s contractors are Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney.

Nine other countries have also placed orders for the F-35, which can take off vertically like a helicopter.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime critic of military spending, said the U.S. has too much invested in the F-35 to pull the plug, even as he criticized the problems.

“In some ways it’s too big to fail, but it’s a debacle. We’ve been fighting this battle of cost overruns and glitches for a number of years,” McCain told reporters. “It’s classic example of the military-industrial-congressional complex.”

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) acknowledged the latest problems are serious, and said the military branches meant to fly the F-35 — the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — should “re-look at the whole schedule” for the effort.

Still, he said, such problems “are not unusual in a very sophisticated development program like this.”