On CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, national security correspondent David Martin chronicled the seemingly never-ending list of problems with the Pentagon’s next-generation F-35 fight jet, from cost overruns of $160 billion to technical problems that have plagued the plane’s development.
When asked if the F-35 program, which is expected to cost some $1.5 trillion over the four-decade life of the program, is now under control, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Frank Kendall, said, "Yes, it is."
But that commitment came with a warning.
“Long gone is the time when we're going to pay for mistake after mistake after mistake," said Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the officer who took control of the F-35 program last year. He added that the planes are necessary, however, to keep pace with the technology being developed by U.S. rivals Russia and China.
“I don't see any scenario where we are walking back away from this program. We're going to buy a lot of these airplanes,” said Bogdan.
DOD is so far down the F-35 rabbit hole, both in terms of technology and cost -- $400 billion for 2,400 planes -- that it has no choice but to continue with the program. Still, it’s not too far gone to send a message to the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
A report in The Washington Post about DOD’s 2015 fiscal request says the Pentagon needs funds to purchase two of the Navy’s version of the plane, six of the Marines,’ and 26 of the Air Force’s model. It’s a sizable order, but it’s actually eight planes less than the 42 originally expected.
In the scheme of things, eight fewer jets among an order of 2,400 is not a big drop. But the timing of the leak to the Post, as well as the admonishment to Lockheed on “60 Minutes,” is hard to dismiss as mere coincidence.
Lockheed did not comment on camera on the “60 Minutes” report.
Lockheed and DOD have been squabbling over F-35 problems for years. In October, a DOD Inspector General report found 719 problems with the plane and said “Lockheed's failure to make sure subcontractors' work was not up to snuff.”
Lockheed countered that the problems were not new and that they were “based on data that's more than 16 months old and [a] majority of the Corrective Action Requests identified have been closed.”
“Producing quality products is a top priority for the F-35 program, and Lockheed Martin and its suppliers strive every day to deliver the best aircraft possible to our customers," Lockheed said in a statement at the time. “When discoveries occur, we take decisive and thorough action to correct the situation. Our commitment is to deliver the F-35's world class Fifth Generation fighter capabilities to the warfighter on time and within budget.”
It seems as if DOD is attempting to send another message with Sunday night’s broadcast and the news that orders are expected to be cut in 2015. This isn’t just a cost issue any more, either – DOD needs the plane to work in order to maintain air superiority.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon is stuck with the F-35, for better or worse, so Lockheed doesn’t really have an incentive to deliver a state of the art plane in working order. DOD is stuck with the contract regardless.
If Lockheed cares about national security, it might want to get the plane working soon. China and Russia are in the plane’s jet contrails and catching up fast.
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