Sen. Durbin questions whether F-35 project has become 'too big to fail'

The second-ranking Senate Democrat on Wednesday pressed top military brass on whether the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, the most expensive military program in U.S. history, has become "too big to fail."

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"In the financial industry, we have this phrase, ‘too big to fail,’ and I'm wondering if this project is so large in scope that it was too big to cancel," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said during a Senate Appropriations Defense subcommittee hearing on the F-35.

"Have we reached a point when it comes to acquisitions in the future that we have to take this into consideration?" Durbin said.

Durbin, the Senate’s majority whip, took the gavel of the powerful Defense Appropriations subpanel after longtime chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) died in January.

His appointment to the top spot was met with some skepticism, given his seeming lack of experience in dealing with the intricacies of the Pentagon's procurement process. Wednesday's hearing was Durbin's first deep dive into a specific weapons program since becoming chairman.

Gen. John Paxton, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, pushed back against Durbin's attempt to draw parallels between the Pentagon program and the 2008 bailout of Wall Street.

"It's not an issue of too big to fail," Paxton told the subcommittee.  "It's an issue of stability [in the program] and using stability to create an advantage and turn risk into opportunity."

The Marine Corps version of the jet, dubbed the B variant, has experienced the most difficulty in the F-35 testing and development phase.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the program's Marine Corps variant, known as the F-35B, on “probation” and threatened to cancel it unless its cost and schedule problems were fixed within two years.

Late last year, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially took the Marine Corps plane off probation. Recent reports, however, claim the program, considered the most expensive acquisition program in Pentagon history, is already $150 billion over budget.

Most recently, the Pentagon grounded the oft-troubled Marine Corps' F-35 in January after key components on the exhaust system on the fighter's single jet engine failed during a test flight at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall said scrapping the entire F-35 program, at this point in the development process, is simply not an option.

"As a practical matter ... we are not at a place where we would consider stopping the program," Kendall said.

"To start over, to go back 10 years, 20 years and invest $20 billion or $30 billion in the development of another aircraft in replacement of the F-35 just doesn't make any sense.”

Despite its checkered past, Kendall tried to reassure Durbin and other senators that the F-35 program is "under control, at least for production [costs]."

But Durbin fired back, pressing Kendall and the service heads of the program on the skyrocketing cost estimates coming from the Pentagon to keep the F-35 battle ready when it enters the fleet.

The Marine Corps version of the jet will hit the runway in late 2015, followed by the Air Force and Navy versions in 2016 and 2019 respectively, according to Department of Defense (DOD) and service schedules.

Current DOD estimates claim it will cost the military $136 billion a year for the next three decades to keep the F-35 fleet in the skies.

"It's my understanding that one of the best ways to reduce sustainment costs is to address them very early in the program," Durbin said.

"It appears that didn't happen as it should have in this program," he said.

That oversight is simply part of the Pentagon's "long history of deceiving itself" into thinking it can build highly advanced weapons like the F-35 at bottom-dollar cost, Michael Gilmore, head of the DOD's weapons testing and evaluation directorate, said Wednesday.

"The department basically deceived themselves about how hard the job was going to be and how expensive it was going to be," according to Gilmore.

"And then reality intruded, and reality always wins," he added.

Kendall told the Senate subcommittee that F-35 program officials are taking every effort to rein in costs.

Continuing to work those cost and sustainment issues is the only option the Pentagon has, given the state of the U.S. military's fighter fleet, Kendall added. 

"There's no question that the threat is driving us towards the next generation of aircraft," he added. Our [current] aircraft are not going to be survivable in future battlefields."