Senate appropriators call the Pentagon's F-35 jet fighter program 'disturbing'

Senate appropriators are blasting the Pentagon’s highest profile program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, calling it “disturbing.” 

The Senate Appropriations panel on Thursday approved a fiscal 2011 Pentagon spending bill that significantly cuts the funding for the production of the new F-35 jets. The Senate appropriators decided to fund only 32 of the 42 jets requested by the Pentagon. 

In report language accompanying the bill, the committee said that the importance of the F-35 program and the urgent need to replace ageing fighter jets “is the only reason why the Committee is scaling back production and not recommending eliminating all funding for this program for fiscal year 2011.” 

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter significantly reshaped the F-35 program — the largest and most expensive program to date — as a result of ballooning costs and development delays. The program manager overseeing the project was also replaced in the process. 

The appropriators are also criticizing the Pentagon and the Obama administration for insisting on scrapping an alternate engine for the largest fighter jet fleet. 

Even though the Senate did not fund the alternate engine made by General Electric and Rolls Royce, the report from the appropriators indicates support for the approach. The primary engine is built by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies. 

“For the last three years in conference [negotiations], this committee has insisted on fully funding the JSF in conjunction with providing funds to develop a second engine,” the report said. 

The appropriators said that the funding for the second engine did not come at the expense of the overall F-35 program. 

“While the second engine program has continued its development on track … the Joint Strike Fighter has seen cost increases and significant delays,” the committee senators wrote in the report. 

They added: “The incongruence of the insistence on canceling the second engine program which has been a near model program and which most analysts expect would curtail long term costs of the entire JSF program with the equal insistence on the need to fully fund the JSF program is hard to rationalize.” 

President Obama threatened to veto any defense bill that contains funding for the second engine. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said multiple times that he would insist on recommending a veto over that funding. 

“This is something we don’t need, we don’t want, and we can’t afford. Secretary Gates has made clear he will do whatever is necessary to make sure that we don’t continue to throw good money after bad in pursuit of the extra engine, and he has the support of President Obama,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said in August. 

That statement came after House defense appropriators approved funding for a second engine despite opposition from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). 

This is the second year in a row that Senate appropriators decided not to fund the second engine — making it a negotiation item with House appropriators for the final bill. Congress funded the second engine in the 2010 legislation. 

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the top Senate appropriator who also chairs the defense panel, said this week that some of the recommendations in the new Pentagon bill, including F-35 funding, would be considered “tough measures.” 

“We consider them prudent,” Inouye said on Tuesday. “I would inform my colleagues that the Defense Department has not yet awarded a contract to build the 30 aircraft which Congress funded nearly a year ago.”

Lockheed Martin, the contractor for the F-35, and the Pentagon are still negotiating a fixed-price contract for 32 early-production F-35 aircraft (30 for the United States and two for international partners). A final contract agreement has been delayed for months. 

The F-35 is meant to replace older aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps as well as international militaries. The cost of the program has risen to $382.4 billion, a 65 percent increase from the projected costs in 2002.

Earlier this year, Lockheed CEO Robert Stevens pledged to keep the program on the right track and indicated the company would assume more risk for cost increases related to F-35 aircraft in early-stage production.

Lockheed officials have stressed that so far the company has been able to beat the government’s projections for the third batch of aircraft in early-stage production by 20 percent and is projecting it would come in more than 20 percent below the Pentagon’s estimate for the next batch, which is the one currently under negotiation.