Even as a US government report has given the beleaguered F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program improved marks, the next-generation fighter has emerged as a prime target of Pentagon planners looking for ways to slash the defence budget, according to reports in the US media.
With the Pentagon needing to find some $46 billion in savings under mandatory cuts known as the sequester, the $396 billion F-35 program — the most expensive in Pentagon history — looms an obvious target. Yet even as the Obama administration publicly works to avert cuts it describes as clumsy and indiscriminate, senior officials quietly view the sequester as an opportunity to scale back bloated “Cold War-era” weapons systems such as the F-35, according to a report in The New York Times.
According to The Times, which quoted unnamed defense officials, planners believe cuts to such programs could save significantly more than $43 billion, freeing up money to expand efforts now seen as more critical, such as building more drones, developing cyberwarfare capabilities, and expanding Special Forces units.
Major cuts to the program are certain to face significant political resistance and would be poorly received by F-35 partner countries such as Australia, since scaling back the US buy would increase per unit costs. Prime contractor Lockheed-Martin has spread F-35 work across nearly every state in the US, allowing it to argue that cuts to the program will cost jobs.
But changes in the political atmosphere in Washington mean that deep defence cuts are widely seen as more likely now than at any time in recent history. Even without the sequester, budget hawks now outnumber defence hawks in the Republican Party, while Democrats are focused on protecting social programs.
Past delays and massive cost overruns in the F-35 programs have also alienated many on Capital Hill, with influential US Sen. John McCain famously lambasting the program in late 2011 as “both a scandal and a tragedy.”
A US government report released this week, however, painted a picture of a program steadily improving despite continued challenges.
“Overall, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is now moving in the right direction after a long, expensive and arduous learning process,” the report by the General Accountability Office said. The GAO was ordered to provide annual updates on the program’s progress in 2010.
According to this year’s report, released in the US on Monday, the F-35 met seven of 10 ‘management objectives,’ including key goals on cost efficiency and training.
Still, Lockheed delivered 10 fewer jets than planned, faced a one-month delay on a design review and failed to fully comply with Defense Department contracting procedures, accounting for the three unmet goals. The GAO also pointed to long-term cost concerns, noting that life cycle sustainment costs for the F-35 fleet were “considered unaffordable by defense officials.” Efforts were underway to lower operating and maintenance costs, the GAO said.
Nevertheless, the report painted a generally upbeat picture, saying flight testing had improved despite the brief grounding of the entire F-35 fleet in February after a crack was found in a turbine blade. Both the Marine Corps’ F-35B STOVL variant and the Navy’s carrier-based F-35C are now ahead of schedule in their test flight programs. The Air Force’s F-35A remains behind due to problems with its air refueling system but has achieved several important milestones.
Cost efficiency is also improving as a result of a faster delivery pace and decreasing labor hours, though the program is still expected to cost about $12.6 billion per year through 2037, a figure that could easily change.
The Defense Department has acquired 52 F-35s to date, including 14 test models, the GAO said.