Skies clear for Joint Strike Fighter

Washington -- The Joint Strike Fighter, one of the most controversial defense programs in recent history, seems to have more lives than a cat.

The stealth aircraft, known as the F-35, had to be grounded last month after a turbine cracked in one of its engines. But, despite its problem-wracked history, the F-35 seems finally to be flying high.

That's good news for Middletown, where a Pratt & Whitney plant builds the engines for the radar-avoiding planes that are manufactured in Texas by Lockheed Martin. The F-35 is now poised to eclipse the nuclear subs built by Electric Boat in the amount of defense dollars funneled into Connecticut.

"The clouds are clearing for the F-35 program," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think-tank. "There will be stable or increases in employment in Middletown for the near future."

The Pentagon wants the F-35 to replace aging aircraft at three branches of the armed services -- the Navy, Air Force and Marines. There are also eight U.S. allies who are partners in developing the plane, including Britain, the Netherlands and Canada, who hope to buy hundreds of fighters.

President Obama's proposed budget for next fiscal year includes $8.4 billion to develop, test and build 29, and there are plans to increase production to as many as 60 planes a year by 2018. Congress is expected to approve the funding.

"As a strong supporter of the Joint Strike Fighter ... I am glad to see robust funding for it continued," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The cost of an average F-35 is about $119 million. The engine Pratt & Whitney produces cost about $14 million. The program calls for more than 2,000 planes.

"You do the math," Thompson said. "This is the biggest, single industrial program occurring in Connecticut for the foreseeable future."

Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies company, did not return calls for this story.

The F-35 program is destined to be the Pentagon's most expensive project.

But the plane has a checkered past that includes cost overruns, weight problems and delays in software and other parts.

Then there's the crack found in the plane's turbine blade in March that forced the grounding of all F-35s for a week.

The bad turbine was sent to Middletown, and Pratt & Whitney determined the problem was "thermal creep" from high-temperature, high-intensity testing

Last month's was the latest in nearly a dozen groundings in

the past five years for a series of problems, including bugs in the plane's software and wrongly crimped fuel lines.

Even Blumenthal, a champion of the Joint Strike Fighter, said the plane has suffered from "formidable engineering and technical challenges."

"And more may be coming," he said.

But Blumenthal also called the F-35 "a technological marvel."

Joe DellaVedova, director of public affairs for the Pentagon's F-35 program office, said problems are to be expected as kinks are straightened out.

"There still are challenges out there. There's no panacea. But we've turned a corner," he said.

DellaVedova said a review of the troubled program begun in 2010 has been effective. He pointed to a General Accountability Office study released last month that said strides to correct problems have been made.

"Manufacturing and supply processes are ... improving. Indicators such as factory throughput, labor efficiency, and quality measures are all positive," the GAO said.

But it also said that the program "continues to incur financial risk from its plan to procure 289 aircraft for $57.8 billion before completing development flight testing."

The GAO also said the Pentagon has been forced to spend $8 billion "to extend the life of existing aircraft and to buy new ones to mitigate shortfalls due to F-35 delays."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, once called  the Joint Strike Fighter program a "tragedy and a scandal."

But after the F-35s arrived in November at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, McCain called the plane "the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world."

McCain, and others, are still critical of the program's massive cost overruns.

With sequestration and other budget cuts to the Pentagon's budget, the biggest challenge facing the F-35 program may not be technical in nature. It will be holding down the cost of the planes -- which has doubled since 2001.

"Why can't we penalize companies for failure to live up to the obligations?" McCain asked during a discussion of the F-35 at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

During a trip to Australia in February, a frustrated Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, the head of the F-35 joint program, was widely quoted criticizing Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney for "trying to squeeze every nickel" out of the Pentagon.

"I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I'm not getting all that love yet," Bogdan said.