While a showdown looms between the White House and Republicans over steep cuts in spending, the single most costly procurement program in Pentagon history remains fully funded with bipartisan backing.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who this week proposed $74 billion in cuts to a broad range of domestic programs, simultaneously proposed a 2 percent increase in defense spending, enough to fund the purchase of 32 F-35s, a stealth fighter that is slated to replace most of the existing U.S. jet fighter force over the next several decades. The Pentagon also purchased 32 F-35s in 2010.
The combined Air Force, Navy and Marine Joint Strike Fighter program, which is at least three years behind schedule and significantly over its original budget, is currently slated to cost $382 billion for 2,456 aircraft by 2035.
The spending resolution being drafted to carry the government through the remainder of the fiscal year also includes $450 million for continued development spending on a second engine for the F-35, which would be built by a joint venture between General Electric and Rolls Royce. “It’s our understanding it is in there,” said a spokesman for GE, who was in the nation’s capital Wednesday as part of a company lobbying team.
Opponents of the second engine program, led by independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, where the Pratt & Whitney engine for the program is built, last year failed in an attempt to strip funding for the GE engine from the program. GE claims competition in engine procurement will ultimately save the government money.
Critics ranging from the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission to former military officers to a coalition of liberal and conservative groups backing steep Defense Department cuts have put the F-35 at the top of their list of Pentagon programs that could be scaled back or eliminated without damaging national security. The Fiscal Commission, for instance, called for cutting the program in half. Their report suggested the fighter fleet could remain at its current size by extending production of modernized F-16, F-18 and A-10 jets, which would save $9.5 billion over the next five years.
“The unit cost of F-35 aircraft is estimated at about $133 million compared to $40 million for an F-16 and $80 million for an F-18,” the fiscal commission report said. “The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy, the military’s current fourth-generation fighters – the F-15, the F-16, and the F-18 – are superior to Chinese and Russian aircraft, and they are less expensive than the F-35,” noted Gordon Adams and Matthew Leatherman in an article in the latest Foreign Affairs.
Responding to the new mood of budget austerity in Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in January put the Marine Corps on notice that its version of the stealth fighter – which would have vertical take-off and landing capability and replace the Harriet jet, which has similar capabilities – was on probation for two years while engineers attempted to iron out technical problems. The Pentagon also reduced its five-year budget request for the F-35 program by $6.9 billion, but said the savings would be plowed back into other defense programs, including further research and development on the F-35.
“The reason for probation is that [the Marine version of the stealth fighter] is experiencing technical issues unique to this variant that will add to the aircraft’s cost and weight,” the Defense Department said in a late January “Fact Sheet.” “The probation period is two years because that is the time it will take to engineer solutions to these issues and assess their impact.”
Critics of the F-35 program have primarily focused on its escalating costs, which are now estimated to be as high $133 million a plane. Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor, says the cost for each additional jet down the road will only be about half that since the costs of development and retooling the production lines in Ft. Worth, Texas and Marietta, Georgia, will have already been spent.
“The thing we have to do is take advantage of the investment we have put into these aircraft and this production line,” said Steve O’Bryan, a retired Navy fighter pilot who now heads up Lockheed’s F-35 business development program. “We need to ramp up as quickly as possible. The real savings come from retiring the older models as quickly as possible.”
But a coalition of former military officers, Department of Defense civilians and Capitol Hill staff is raising major tactical questions about the program, which some say should be cancelled. They point out that the escalating cost of new hardware will shrink the military’s size, effectiveness and prolong the life of outdated planes, even as it increases the military’s overall budget. “New weapons systems cost three to ten times more to buy and operate than the weapons they are replacing,” they wrote last November. “The cost explosion in new weapons dooms the military services to being unable to buy as many weapons as they had – hence the shrinking hardware inventories . . . and aging.”
“The F-35 is a terrible idea,” said Winslow Wheeler, a long-time Hill staffer who worked for both Republican and Democratic senators on defense issues and now heads the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “It will quite literally set our Air Force backwards, not forwards. “Even if it lived up to its performance promises, and it’s not, it would be a huge disappointment as an air-to-air fighter; it is an insignificant bomb truck to replace F-16s; and it is a giant leap backwards in replacing the A-10 for close air support.”