U.S. senators seek cost cuts for F-35 fighter jet

WASHINGTON — Senators sought cost-cutting opportunities Wednesday in the Pentagon’s $400 billion program for the next-generation F-35, a fighter jet with a troubled testing record that military leaders said America couldn’t afford not to build.

Chairing the hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin lamented that the F-35 ­— which is being tested at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas — already has cost taxpayers billions more than what Congress signed up for more than a decade ago. The Illinois Democrat asked military leaders to justify costs that have soared more than 70 percent and estimates that the entire program could exceed $1 trillion over 50 years.

“The Joint Strike Fighter program has had more than its share of problems over the last decade,” Durbin said. “Frankly, its history reads like a textbook on how not to run a major acquisition effort.”

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, and it has been troubled by schedule delays and cost overruns. The developer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., is building different versions for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force F-16 fighter, the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet and the Marines’ EA-6B Prowler and AV-8B Harrier. International partners, including Britain, also are in line to buy F-35s.

Nellis, a test bed for the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter jets, received its first four F-35s this year. The last plane, priced at $67 million, arrived at Nellis on April 24, more than a month after it had set out from Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

The stealthy jet had been forced to make a precautionary landing at Lubbock International Airport when a cockpit warning light came on. The F-35 was stranded in Lubbock while technicians spent weeks troubleshooting the problem in the complex, triple-redundant flight control system before tracing it to an issue with the communication system. The problem was fixed, and the plane was flown back to the plant for more testing.

The four F-35s are assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis, a tenant unit of the 53rd Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., that Nellis maintainers support.

Nellis is expected to have 36 Lightning IIs for testing and training by 2020.

As historic budget cuts began to kick in April under the sequester law, Brig. Gen. Charles L. Moore Jr., commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis said Air Force leaders “are doing everything we can to keep testing of the F-35 on track and have some hours to continue in August, but they will stand down as well” before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Costs vary by the features in each model of the plane, but can reach $169 million per unit. An F/A-18 Super Hornet can cost half that much.

President Barack Obama’s budget request for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 calls for spending $8.7 billion to develop, test and buy 29 aircraft. In total, the Pentagon envisions purchasing more than 2,400 F-35s.

Leaders of the U.S. military’s different branches stressed that costs were now decreasing.

Pentagon acquisitions chief Frank Kendall said that with the plane 90 percent developed and testing almost half-done, officials were still focusing on creating a more stable design that would help bring production costs down.

“Indications are that this time these efforts are succeeding, but we still have a lot of work left to do,” he told a Senate appropriations subcommittee. Kendall, who once criticized the decision to produce the F-35 ahead of its testing as “acquisition malpractice,” said stopping production while all problems were worked through would have resulted in significant further costs and disruption.

Asked by Durbin whether the program was now “too big to fail” or “too big to cancel,” Kendall said no program enjoyed such status.

Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said his service couldn’t afford not to build the plane if the U.S. is to maintain the air superiority it has enjoyed since World War II and prepare for emerging global threats.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert of the Navy, whose F-35s will be made to take off from the short runways on aircraft carriers, said software and other costs could still pose problems for the program.

Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report.