Pentagon cuts order for F-35 fighters

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will request 34 Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 jets in its budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, eight fewer than previously planned, according to officials.

The fiscal 2015 request, to be released on March 4, will include funds to buy 26 of the Air Force’s model, six of the Marine Corps’ short-takeoff and vertical-landing jets and two of the Navy’s version for aircraft carriers, according to the officials familiar with the plans.

Even with the decrease from past plans, the defense budget reflects pledges by officials to do all they could to insulate the costliest U.S. weapons program from federal budget cuts. Marillyn Hewson, chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed, predicted that its F-35 program is “going to continue to grow and become a larger part of our portfolio.”

While the budget request will be down from the 42 fighters the Defense Department had projected it would buy next year, it’s an increase from the 29 the Pentagon requested and Congress approved for the current fiscal year.

“It would be inappropriate to comment or speculate prior to the formal budget release,” Lockheed spokeswoman Laura Siebert said when asked about the F-35 plans.

The projected price tag of $391.2 billion for an eventual fleet of 2,443 F-35s is a 68 percent increase from the estimate in 2001, measured in current dollars. The number of aircraft is 409 fewer than called for in the original program. The Pentagon’s chief tester has repeatedly questioned the plane’s progress, finding last month that the fighter wasn’t sufficiently reliable in training flights last year.

The five-year defense budget plan through 2019 also calls for 55 F-35s for the U.S. military in fiscal 2016, seven fewer than planned, and adds a projection for 96 of the jets in 2019. The figures don’t include purchases by other nations that are partners for the F-35. Among them are Britain, Norway, Australia, Italy and Canada.

Subcontractors on the F-35 include Northrop Grumman Corp., BAE Systems and United Technologies Corp.’s Pratt &Whitney military engine unit.

Under last year’s bipartisan budget agreement, the Pentagon must reduce its total budget request by about $43 billion to stay within a cap of about $498 billion for fiscal 2015.

The spending request, not including spending on war operations, will be about $496 billion, with plans for it to increase to about $535 billion in fiscal 2016, officials said.

“Will there be cuts across the board?” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said this month in outlining the general approach he’s taking to hitting the budget cap. “Of course there will. You can’t do it any other way. Are there going to be adjustments across the board? Of course.”

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