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Pentagon’s F-35 Fighter Under Fire in Congress

April 21, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Defense Department is waging a battle over the increasing price of its new stealth aircraft program. Kwame Holman reports on why the Joint Strike Fighter program, which was supposed to save the military money, is taking fire in Washington.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: to the saga of a U.S. military plane that was designed to do more for less, but is now hitting headwinds.

Congressional Correspondent Kwame Holman has the story.

KWAME HOLMAN: It may look like any other fighter jet at Patuxent River Naval Air station, but the Joint Strike Fighter taking shape here is the Pentagon’s costliest and some say riskiest bet ever on the future of military aviation. It has come under fire from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

MAN: I think the American people, if they knew about this, would be shocked about how long it has taken to do this plane and get it into the air.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: Somebody needs to be held accountable.

KWAME HOLMAN: A major selling point for the F-35 was, it would save money. The Pentagon plans to produce one aircraft that could be used by three branches of the military, as well as by America’s allies, instead of developing different planes for each service.

It would be stealthy, like these F-117s, and could perform a variety of missions, such as bombing heavily defended targets and supporting troops on the ground. It would be an airplane that could take off and land in three different ways. The Marine Corps version would fly off short runways and land vertically, like their Harriers do today.

The Navy’s would fly off aircraft carriers like their current FA-18s. And the Air Force version could take off from traditional runways, like their F-16s.

TOM BURBAGE, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company: There’s lots of second-order and third-order beneficial effects of designing a common family of airplanes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tom Burbage is an executive at Lockheed Martin, the F-35′s prime contractor. He says that, by sharing common parts and production, the cost to build and operate the airplane could be kept low.

TOM BURBAGE: The whole purpose behind F-35 was to integrate those requirements and develop a family, and lower the total cost of recapitalizing the individual services and the coalition allies.

KWAME HOLMAN: The military’s current plan is to buy 2,443 of the so-called Lightning IIs for an estimated $323 billion, making it the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program.

By some accounts, it could end up replacing 95 percent of the U.S. combat air fleet, much of it now aging and needing to be replaced. Plans for eight allied nations to buy more than 700 planes also were touted as a way to share the costs. Its supporters claimed the F-35 was positioned to become the future of manned combat aviation.

But production costs have skyrocketed from $59 million to as much as $112 million per plane, a 60 percent to 90 percent increase in the last eight years. Research and development costs also have ballooned 40 percent. The Pentagon blames the escalation on changes to the F-35′s design and production schedule.

Recently, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill vented her frustration at top Pentagon acquisition officials.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I need somebody to do an estimate on the problems associated with this program. I need to know whose fault it is. This is too big to fail, this program. And we’re going to push money across the table. We’re going to push back timelines. We’re going to push money across the table. And I need to figure out, I think we all need to figure out, whose fault is it?

KWAME HOLMAN: Bill Sweetman, a journalist and author of more than 30 books on military aviation technology, says the Pentagon and defense contractors underestimated the challenge of building such a complicated aircraft.

BILL SWEETMAN, journalist/author: When the Joint Strike Fighter program got started, the people who were running the program — program believed very seriously that it was possible to make three versions of this aircraft that were simply different in the way that they took off and landed. It looks like the aircraft is rather more difficult to manufacture than they hoped.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sweetman says the version of the F-35 for the Marine Corps is particularly complex and problematic to build, and that leads to cascading difficulties for the entire program.

BILL SWEETMAN: The most difficult design by far is the Marine Corps aircraft, because it has a completely separate propulsion system that’s — that actually supports the aircraft when it is taking off and landing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lockheed Martin’s Burbage acknowledges there have been setbacks, but maintains the original idea of building one plane with three variants is sound. He says the F-35 will be stealthy, equipped with the latest electronics to fly over highly defended areas, and will be easier to operate and maintain than the aircraft it is replacing.

TOM BURBAGE: Yes, we have had some cost growth and, yes, we have had some schedule growth over time. But there is a long-term proposition associated with this program that is absolutely unique. It’s not been attempted before. And it carries through into many areas, other than just the cost of development or the cost of acquisition.

KWAME HOLMAN: But longtime defense analyst Winslow Wheeler disagrees.

WINSLOW WHEELER, Former Congressional Defense Staff: The cost on this thing is out of control, but they’re pretending it’s affordable.

KWAME HOLMAN: Wheeler worked on Capitol Hill for three decades focusing on defense issues. He says the Joint Strike Fighter was doomed from the very beginning, that it will never be affordable and should be canceled.

WINSLOW WHEELER: We’re only partway through with this thing. We have another five years of, you know, testing and development to go. We have only begun to learn about the problems. And, so, by the time this thing is done, it will be a record-breaker in terms of nightmares in costs, scheduling, performance.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bill Sweetman says the recent skyrocketing cost overruns jeopardize the whole foundation for the F-35.

BILL SWEETMAN: The idea was, you have one airplane, you buy a lot of them, you bring down the unit cost. If they can’t do that, then the whole economic basis for this program is in peril.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Pentagon recognized last fall that flight testing, manufacturing problems, and cost overruns were getting more serious.

In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired the F-35′s program manager.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: The progress and performance of the F-35 over the past two years has not been what it should.

KWAME HOLMAN: In March, the Pentagon increased the budget and extended the schedule for the F-35, for the fourth time since the program began. Billions more will go to improved software and to flight test more plans, and the target number of F-35s to be delivered in the next five years will be reduced by a quarter, to 361.

Testifying before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Defense Secretary Gates said production and cost estimates for the F-35 long have been too optimistic.

ROBERT GATES: Part of the program that we have faced in this program is overly rosy forecasts by the program office itself.

KWAME HOLMAN: Officials say a new independent team put in place last year to reform Pentagon spending now is providing more realistic estimates.

MAJ. GEN. C.D. MOORE, F-35 acting program executive officer: Your band of uncertainty decreases over time as you mature the weapons system.

KWAME HOLMAN: Major General C.D. Moore, the acting program executive officer of the F-35, says the new cost estimates are likely to be more accurate than previous ones.

MAJ. GEN. C.D. MOORE: So, I would say that, 10 years ago, we had a pretty wide band of uncertainty, cost, schedule, performance. We have a much narrower band of uncertainty now. So, I would say, going forward, why, I can look you in the eye and say, let’s talk a year from now and let me show you what we delivered this year.

KWAME HOLMAN: But problems for the F-35 remain. The GAO says its hot exhaust may damage runways and flight decks on ships, and heat buildup inside the aircraft may impede its ability to operate in hot environments.

Such issues are to be fixed while new planes are being built. Hundreds of F-35s are to be built by the end of 2015. Bill Sweetman says that approach could lead to more cost and more delay.

BILL SWEETMAN: The risk is that the early aircraft you ordered have problems in them that you haven’t found yet because you haven’t done the testing yet. So,
it goes back, essentially, into another factory. It gets pulled apart and rebuilt to the latest standard. And that is, economically, a nightmare. It’s very expensive. It’s not the way you want to do things.

KWAME HOLMAN: Critic Winslow Wheeler’s prediction is more dire, that the F-35 never will be able to fulfill its mission, because it is too heavy to fight other aircraft in the air, but too fast, thin-skinned, and lightly armed to support troops on the ground.

WINSLOW WHEELER: The history of multirole fighters, even for single services, is terrible. They do nothing well.

In effect, we will be giving our combat forces a second-rate combat tool. They will learn to live with it. Some of them will learn to love it. Some of them won’t. If we’re lucky, we will never face a really competent air force in the lifetime of this thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the public confidence about the F-35 program expressed by the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin has never been higher.

TOM BURBAGE: This is not an airplane that we’re going to be flying today in combat. It is an airplane that our children and our grandchildren will be flying in combat. So, we’re designing — we’re designing and building an airplane for the future, not for today.

KWAME HOLMAN: Much more on who is right about the nation’s most expensive new weapon will be known in the next few months.