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McCain says Pentagon may need to trim F-35 purchases

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., surrounded by reporters in Washington.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., surrounded by reporters in Washington. AP

The Pentagon must reevaluate whether it can afford to buy its entire planned fleet of F-35 jets, the costliest U.S. weapons system, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Wednesday.

When the Lockheed Martin beat Boeing in a competition to build the fighter in 2001, plans called for more than 1,000 of the program’s 2,443 jets to be delivered by next Sept. 30. But following development delays, just 179 have actually been delivered so far, said McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a session with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

To complete the program, he said, “we would have to purchase 100 F-35s per year for more than 20 years at a cost of $10 billion to $12 billion a year. That seems unlikely, and all that assumes the F-35 will provide the necessary capability.”

The F-35 has drawn particular scrutiny because of its cost, with any increase or decrease signaling a shift of billions of dollars. It’s currently estimated to cost $391.1 billion to develop and purchase the aircraft. Estimates have climbed as much as 71 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since the Pentagon signed the initial contract because of technical problems and issues such as the aircraft’s unplanned increase in weight.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have 2,443. I just want to know how you get there,” said McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war who has been a frequent critic of the program. He said a Senate report accompanying the annual defense authorization measure requires an evaluation within six months of how many F-35s can be purchased. “If it’s not a realistic estimate, shouldn’t we have a realistic estimate?”

Earlier this year, McCain had said that “after suffering years of unacceptable cost growth and schedule delays, the program appears to have started to stabilize.” The first combat-ready unit of F-35s, a Marine Corps squadron, is based at Yuma in his state.

The Pentagon’s current plan calls for requesting 66 jets in fiscal 2017, up from 57 last year; the annual quantity would increase to 92 by 2020.

In west Fort Worth, Lockheed Martin is spending $1.2 billion to reconfigure and expand its manufacturing facility to handle increased production, and expects to hire 1,000 additional assembly line employees starting next year. Counting planes being built for other countries, annual production is expected to triple by 2017.

McCain said that a potential decision by the new Canadian government to cancel its planned purchase of 65 Air Force model F-35s, if realized, “of course, ratchets up the unit cost.”

“I’m not making a judgment but it seems to me that if we had planned on originally procuring a thousand of them” by the end of this fiscal year “and instead we have procured 179, there may be some mismatch there,” he said.

This article includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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