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GAO Questions Cost Of Joint Strike Fighter

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A06

Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is at a crossroads, the Government Accountability Office said yesterday, calling the original plan for the project "unexecutable."

The fighter was designed to be a low-cost replacement to the Air Force's F-16, with different versions being developed for the Navy, Marine Corps and British forces. But it is now expected to cost $244.8 billion to produce a planned 2,400 planes. Development will cost $44.8 billion, including a $10 billion increase identified last year, the report said.

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Nearly half the increase, $4.9 billion, is needed to lower the aircraft's weight because being heavier hurt "the aircraft's key performance capabilities," the report said. The Pentagon said more money was also needed to add anti-tampering technology to keep sensitive technology safe.

Spending on the program will eventually increase to $1 billion a month from $100 million a month as the Defense Department invests in tools, facilities and workers, according to the report. The final design of the fighter should be set before the Pentagon makes those investments so that costly changes will not have to be made later, a GAO official said.

"While delays are never welcomed, time taken by DOD now to gain more knowledge and reduce risk before increasing its investment may well save time and money later," the report said. "Now is the time to get the strategy right." It also said the strike fighter will have to compete with other expensive programs for "scarce funding."

The Pentagon's Joint Strike Fighter office said it has already addressed the concerns raised in the report, the first of five annual reviews of the program ordered by Congress. The latest plan for the program, which includes delaying the first aircraft delivery one year until 2009, "reflects an acquisition strategy with the most appropriate balance of technical, cost, and schedule risks to meet program objectives," the office said in a written statement.

"Much progress has been made since last year. The F-35 has resolved its weight problem," said Lockheed spokesman Jeff Adams.

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