F-35 jet program likely to cost more and face delays, Air Force chief says

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said Tuesday that the Pentagon's plan for the service to use top-of-the-line fighter jets will probably cost more than originally expected and be delayed by two years.

The Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 Lightning II, is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons system and has been touted as an integral part of the military's approach to waging war in the skies in the future. The costly program involves buying aircraft for the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Navy, plus nine U.S. allies. But building the fighter jets has been difficult, with billions of dollars in cost overruns and performance problems that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently described as "troubling."

Donley told reporters Tuesday that he thought "we are going to have a slip" on the F-35 program and that the planes would probably not be ready for the Air Force until 2015. The jets were expected to be available in 2013.

The Pentagon declined to say whether there might also be delays in the F-35 program for the Marines and Navy, which are expected to use the jets starting in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

A month ago, Gates said he would fire Marine Maj. Gen. David R. Heinz, the executive officer in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter's development, and withhold $614 million from the contractor, Lockheed Martin of Bethesda.

The Obama administration is asking Congress to provide $11.4 billion overall for the Joint Strike Fighter program next year, including $8.4 billion to buy 43 planes.

Gates said in February that he believed there were "no insurmountable problems, technological or otherwise, with the F-35. . . . We are in a position to move forward with this program in a realistic way."

But the Air Force secretary's update suggests problems with the F-35 may be more severe than Pentagon officials had anticipated, industry analysts said.

"The secretary of defense reluctantly supports this program because he has no alternative," said Mackenzie Eaglen, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"The [Joint Strike Fighter] is like a sweater. . . . You pull any thread, like pushing back on full-rate production, and things can fall apart very quickly," she said. "A delayed start date will have a ripple effect of steadily increasing the average age of the Air Force's inventory."

In a statement, Lockheed Martin said that it remains "fully-committed to the F-35 program" and that it was working toward stabilizing "cost and affordability -- and to fielding the aircraft on time."

Pentagon officials said they are in the process of restructuring the program, which involves international partners, including Britain, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Norway and Australia. Defense Department officials have been briefing legislators on Capitol Hill, industry officials and other governments on the program.

Richard Aboulafia, a vice president and defense industry analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax County, said the cost to build the plane is now expected to be $65 million to $70 million apiece -- not counting the research and development cost. He called the growing price tag "concerning."

"This aircraft was supposed to help the military's three services replace their aging fleets," he said. "This was going to solve everyone's problems and be competitive on export markets. But with a $70 million price, you're jeopardizing both assumptions."

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