Senators Ask For JSF Alternatives

After more than a decade of pursuing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are indicating that the Pentagon’s biggest weapon program might need an understudy.
“It seems to me [prudent that] we at least begin considering alternatives,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during a hearing May 19, after hearing that current estimates show the program’s development and sustainment are unaffordable.
That idea does not sit well with the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, Ashton Carter, who says the Pentagon has no good alternative to the next-generation stealthy fighter, even though the cost to sustain the program into the future is an eye-popping $1 trillion, adjusted for inflation over its lifespan. That is less than the cost to sustain the F-22, about the same as the F-15, and more than either the F-16 or the F-18. Carter is pledging the amount will be brought down during a “should-cost” review of the program that he will finish in the next couple of months.

Not all members of the Senate committee that sets policy for the Defense Department agree with McCain that it is time to begin looking at other options.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), from the home state of the program’s Ft. Worth production facilities, says that the Pentagon needs to do all it can to protect the JSF. “If you’re going to put all your eggs in one basket, you ought to protect that basket.” Cornyn says.

Others picked up on McCain’s comment, however, including Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who pressed Carter on exactly how much cost the Pentagon would like to see removed from the sustainment estimate.

Carter says he is aiming to reduce costs by 20% to 50%. “It’s not a small amount,” Carter says.

But Christine Fox, the director of the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation office, casts doubt on that goal, saying that even if the program can speed software development to reduce costs, operation and sustainment (O&S) reductions are another matter.

“O&S is hard,” Fox says, adding that the cost of fuel, for example, will not be easy to reduce. “Whether we can get it all the way down to legacy [O&S cost levels] is something that I in my office doubt.”

Asked about the costs, Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin’s general manager for F-35 program integration, says that the next-generation fighter’s sustainment costs cannot be fairly compared to older aircraft.

He says JSF sustainment was developed on a performance-based logistics plan different than legacy sustainment processes. The JSF’s O&S estimates also go out to 2065 and are susceptible to ground rules that legacy aircraft are not bound to, he adds.

Nonetheless, committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wants Carter to report back within a week on what the Pentagon sees as an alternative to JSF if the Pentagon’s goals are not met.

“We need to know what the driver is, to succeed here,” Levin says. “Part of the driver is to have a backup plan.” By Jen DiMascio

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