Pentagon cuts could slow F-35 fighter program

WASHINGTON — The on-time rollout of the F-35 fighter jet for its 2017 deadline could be in jeopardy as a result of forced federal budget cuts, testified a key military official to Congress on Wednesday.

The monetary problems could lead to a loss of customers for Lockheed Martin’s program based in Fort Worth, Texas, hurting the company. Six thousand people work on the F-35 project in Fort Worth.

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon’s executive officer of the F-35 program, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that he has “moderate confidence” that the first two software upgrade phases needed to complete the program will be delivered on time, but is less optimistic that the final phase will be completed as scheduled because of mandated budget cuts, known as sequestration, in the current fiscal year.

President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for next fiscal year would give $6.36 billion to plan to build 29 F-35s for 2014, and would increase production to as many as 60 aircraft a year by 2018.

The F-35 program’s eight partner countries, including the United Kingdom, are carefully watching the costs of F-35s. The United States pushed back an order of 179 planes for later, which caused Italy to reduce its jet order from 140 planes to 90. Canada and the Netherlands, too, have cut back on plane orders, Bogdan said, though Singapore is showing interest.

Any reduced orders mean increased unit costs for the rest of the customers.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Bogdan’s doubt was unnerving. “None of us around here seem to like the word ‘moderate,”’ McCain said.

Without the funding it has maintained from previous years, it could be difficult to complete the last phase of the project, Bogdan said. “It is vital for us to keep the partners in the program,” he said.

McCain questioned the program’s efficiency and affordability and said that history is repeating itself. The F-35’s problem of overrunning costs isn’t a new one and has happened with jets before, including with the F-22, he said. It’s time to understand the core of these financial problems to ensure that they don’t happen in the future, he said.

Bogdan said he is ready to tackle the long-term costs of the program and is analyzing cost reduction methods to hopefully reduce the estimated $1.4 trillion over the next 50-plus years that will go into rolling out the jets.

Bogdan said he will be more sure at the end of the summer as to the likelihood of the program’s 2017 completion.

Michael Rein, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 spokesperson, said that despite budget cuts, the United States and several international partners still rely on F-35 production, and Lockheed Martin will still have orders to fill.

“While sequestration will have an impact, F-35s are going to be built at Fort Worth for years to come,” Rein said.

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