Pentagon still committed to buy more F-35s amid budget pressures

F-35s move down the assembly line at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth.
F-35s move down the assembly line at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram

The Pentagon still plans a fleet of 2,443 F-35 jets, but the costliest U.S. weapons program may face cuts under the next president if defense dollars continue to be reduced, according to the Defense Department’s No.2 official.

The Pentagon’s focus “for the foreseeable future is to acquire F-35s at the highest rate affordable” even though the goal for a fleet of 2,443 of the fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin was established before budget caps reduced planned levels of spending through 2021, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work wrote in a letter to congressional defense leaders last month.

The Pentagon wants to increase the purchase rate of F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps to 92 annually by 2020 from 38 last year. The number jumps to 120 a year when foreign sales are included. For this year, Congress added 11 aircraft to the 57 requested. The Pentagon said in March that the program’s projected cost for development and acquisition dropped by $12.1 billion to $379 billion.

That will help bring down the per-plane cost, Work wrote in an interim report required by Congress to reevaluate whether the long-standing requirement of 2,443 jets — including 1,763 for the Air Force — remained valid.

The F-35 is being built at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in west Fort Worth, where a $1.2 billion reworking and expansion of its mile-long assembly plant is underway. The company plans to add 1,000 workers to the Fort Worth facility.

With U.S. defense policy putting increasing emphasis on countering a resurgent Russia in Europe and a more assertive Chinese military, Work said it’s “conceivable that we may need more F-35s than the current program” calls for.

Work’s letter comes as the often-criticized F-35 is enjoying some successes. Three of the four congressional defense committees added aircraft to the fiscal year request of 63. Air Force officials say there are no known technical obstacles to declaring as soon as August that as many as 24 jets have initial combat capability. The Marine Corps version is set to fly next month to the Farnsborough Air Show in the U.K.

Still, Pentagon officials acknowledged last month that the operational combat testing intended to evaluate whether the aircraft is combat-effective and can be maintained in the field won’t begin until 2018 — about a year later than planned.