Politics & Government

F-35 program remains late and over budget, but doing better: Pentagon

Lockheed Martin's F-35 jet fighter is over budget and behind schedule, but Pentagon officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee Monday that per plane development costs are dropping.
Lockheed Martin's F-35 jet fighter is over budget and behind schedule, but Pentagon officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee Monday that per plane development costs are dropping. U.S. Department of Defense

Defense Department officials defended the embattled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program Tuesday, insisting the warplane is still on track despite continued financial and technical glitches.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program’s executive officer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that since a 2012 restructuring, the program’s overall cost continues to decrease, and delays are not as bad.

The Government Accountability Office agreed on those points. But the GAO said the F-35 program, which Lockheed Martin produces at its west Fort Worth complex, is still over budget and behind schedule. The Pentagon must continue to lower costs and increase efficiency to make the fighter combat-ready.

“Although the program has managed costs very well” since 2012, said Michael Sullivan, of the GAO, it still poses significant funding challenges for the Pentagon. This is especially true, Sullivan said, when balanced against other funding priorities like the Ohio-class submarine and the B-21 bomber.

Armed Services Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wasn’t satisfied. He called the program “both a scandal and a tragedy in regards to both cost and performance.”

53 number of F-35s Lockheed Martin expects at its Fort Worth plant this year

McCain, a former fighter pilot, said the F-35 is the most expensive project of its kind in Defense Department history. However, he added that “the full capabilities this aircraft will eventually provide are critical to our nation’s national security.”

The fighter is meant to replace aging warplanes like the F-16 and the A-10 and allow the United States to maintain superiority in the skies against technologically advanced enemies. Lockheed Martin expects to produce 53 F-35s this year, as its complex undergoes a $1.2 billion renovation to meet production needs.

The cost to develop production-ready versions of the F-35 dropped from $391 billion in 2014 to $379 billion in March (in 2014 dollars), but a GAO report released earlier this month said defects in the jet’s “computer brain” – called the Autonomic Logistics Information System – could raise costs by up to $100 billion.

We believe we’ve identified the root cause of the problems and are now completing flight tests with these solutions.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan

The GAO’s Sullivan called the information system the most worrisome and expensive part of the F-35 and also the most important for its warfighting ability.

But Bogdan told the committee that “challenges and discoveries,” with the ALIS and other parts of the fighter, are what’s to be expected at this stage of development.

“We believe we’ve identified the root cause of the problems and are now completing flight tests with these solutions,” Bogdan said. He estimated the program should have enough data to consider the current issue closed by the end of the month.

The ALIS program has been delayed by about 60 days, Bogdan said, but that delay still falls within the Air Force’s general development timetable and is in line with the overall program: still behind schedule and still well over budget, but doing better at meeting expectations. The end, officials agreed, is finally in sight.

“The F-35 is no longer a program that keeps me up at night,” Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told the committee. Kendall acknowledged the costs and the problems, but he said the Joint Strike Fighter program is headed in the right direction.

Steven Musal, 202-661-0129; @stevemusal

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