The Trump administration should “rigorously and comprehensively review” Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet to address continued performance deficiencies, the Defense Department’s director of combat testing said.
Michael Gilmore, who will leave the post of testing director when Donald Trump takes office as president next week, cited the fighter’s “significant, well-documented deficiencies in critical combat capabilities” in a letter Monday to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, a strong supporter of the F-35.
While Trump has tweeted that “the F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Pentagon officials say the plane is now essentially on schedule and close to its budget after earlier problems. Lockheed Martin is spending $1.2 billion on expanding and reworking its aeronautics complex in west Fort Worth to accommodate increased production of the plane.
Under current plans, the U.S. is scheduled to increase purchases of the jet in the fiscal 2018 budget to 70 from 63 this year. Then, the number is grow to 80 in fiscal 2019. There's also a pending “block buy” of 450 aircraft in the coming years as the Pentagon seeks a total fleet of 2,443.
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Gilmore focused on unresolved performance issues in the current $55 billion development phase. These must be resolved before the aircraft can enter intense combat testing and the eventual deployment this decade of fully capable combat jets.
The Defense Department’s F-35 program office “has no plan to adequately fix and verify hundreds of these deficiencies using flight testing within its currently planned schedule and resources,” Gilmore wrote. Deploying F-35s “with capable mission systems is critical to our national security,” but the program now “is at high risk of sacrificing essential combat performance,” he added.
The Pentagon’s office of independent cost analysis estimates that extending the development phase from its planned test flight completion in September 2017 to as late as 2020 could cost as much as $1.12 billion more. The number is included in the testing director’s new annual report delivered to Pentagon leaders and lawmakers late Monday.
The program office has said completing the phase will require about $530 million extra and acknowledges that it may slip to May 2018.