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Report: Pentagon will request fewer F-35s in 2015

The Pentagon will request funding for 34 Lockheed Martin F-35 jets in its budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, eight fewer than previously planned, The Washington Post reported.

The fiscal 2015 request, to be released March 4, would pay for 26 of the Air Force’s model, six short-takeoff and vertical-landing jets for the Marine Corps and two of the Navy’s version for aircraft carriers, according to officials familiar with the plans, who asked not to be identified because the budget hasn’t been made public.

Although the budget request will be down from the 42 fighters the Defense Department had projected it would buy next year, it’s still more than the 29 that Congress approved for the current fiscal year.

“It would be inappropriate to comment or speculate prior to the formal budget release,” Lockheed spokeswoman Laura Siebert said in an e-mail when asked about the report.

The five-year defense budget plan also calls for 55 F-35s for the U.S. military in fiscal 2016, seven fewer than planned, and adds a projection for 96 jets in 2019. The figures don’t include purchases by other nations that are partners in the program, such as Britain, Norway, Australia, Italy and Canada.

Lockheed Martin has been hoping that the Pentagon will ramp up production of the F-35, which has endured years of technical problems and cost overruns. Last year, Lockheed Martin changed top managers at the west Fort Worth plant where the plane is being built, and military officials reported that the program was making progress.

During a report on CBS’ 60 Minutes telecast Sunday night, the F-35’s program manager, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, said he does not see any scenario where the Pentagon would back away from the program, despite continuing performance issues.

“We’re going to buy a lot of these airplanes,” he said.

Bogdan said the U.S. government has imposed new cost controls on Lockheed Martin, which prevents the defense contractor from collecting a profit on the F-35s unless planes proceed through production on time and meet quality standards. The program is $163 billion over budget and years behind schedule.

“Long gone is the time when we’re going to pay for mistake after mistake after mistake,” Bogdan said.

The program calls for Lockheed Martin to produce more than 2,400 F-35s at a cost of nearly $400 billion. It rolled out its 100th jet in December. Lockheed said about 9.500 of the 14,000 Lockheed employees in Fort Worth are tied to the F-35 program.

Under last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, the Pentagon must reduce its total budget request by about $43 billion to stay within a cap of about $498 billion for fiscal 2015.

Even with the lessened request for F-35 funding, the defense budget reflects pledges by officials to do all they can to insulate the costliest U.S. weapons program from federal budget cuts.

Marillyn Hewson, chairman and chief executive of Lockheed, predicted in a Feb. 10 interview that the company’s F-35 program is “going to continue to grow and become a larger part of our portfolio.”

Staff writer Steve Kaskovich contributed to this report, which includes material from Bloomberg News.