Pentagon fires back at Trump, says F-35 costs not ‘out of control’

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said Monday that the F-35 has been on budget since changes were made to the Fort Worth-based manufacturing program in 2011.
Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan said Monday that the F-35 has been on budget since changes were made to the Fort Worth-based manufacturing program in 2011. Star-Telegram archives

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet program is not spiraling out of control as President-elect Donald Trump has said, according to Pentagon officials preparing to making their case to the new administration.

Critics of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system ignore progress that has been made since the program was reset in 2011, when it was six years behind schedule and $13 billion over budget, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who heads the agency responsible for developing and acquiring the fighter jet, told reporters Monday.

“This program is not out of control,” Bogdan said. “Since 2011, we have basically been on schedule. Since 2011, we have basically been on budget.”

Trump has assailed the F-35’s costs on Twitter and at rallies in recent days as he vows to change the Defense Department’s business practices.

“The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump wrote last week on Twitter. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th,” or Inauguration Day.

Even as he defended the program, Bogdan revealed a new, if minor, delay for Lockheed’s marquee jet during a briefing updating the F-35’s status.

He said the Pentagon has directed the program office to plan for development flight testing to end as late as May 2018 instead of the planned September 2017 completion date because of software delays and other issues. Bogdan said he estimates flight testing will end in February 2018. The F-35 is being built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth.

In addition to criticizing the F-35, Trump has put Boeing on notice that it must cut costs for the next version of Air Force One. And he has vowed to “impose a lifetime ban on people that give these massive contracts out, or even small contracts” from going to work for defense contractors.

Although defense companies stand to benefit from a huge increase in military spending promised by Trump, they are also emblematic of the Washington establishment that he railed against during the presidential campaign. The Defense Department plans to spend more than $14 billion annually for almost a decade on the F-35, and “with a history of overruns and delays, it’s the most obvious target,” said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with Teal Group.

The $379 billion F-35, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is the first jet created to serve the vastly different combat missions of the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and it has been plagued by technical malfunctions.

The Pentagon’s top weapons tester, Michael Gilmore, has warned officials in at least four memos since August that the F-35’s development should be extended past next year because of continued deficiencies to its combat systems, weapons accuracy and air-to-ground gun.

Two of the three services have declared their versions of the F-35 as having initial combat capability as development winds down and Lockheed prepares to boost production rates at its sprawling complex in west Fort Worth.