Congress’ money for F-35 program may come with strings attached

The F-35

The F-35

Washington – Congress has moved to condition funding for the F-35 fighter plane, whose engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, on guarantees that a sophisticated support system for the plane will work.

The latest flak to hit the F-35 program is a provision in the $579 million House defense appropriations bill that would limit the number of planes to be built next year to 36 unless the Pentagon certifies the problem-plagued logistics system  is glitch-free. The system, manufactured by the plane’s maker, Lockheed Martin, coordinates maintenance, parts supply, operational support and other functions for the F-35.

The Pentagon had requested 57 planes and the House Armed Services Committee authorized funding for 65.

The defense spending bill, approved by a voice vote Tuesday in the House Appropriations Committee, says, “The committee is concerned that despite action taken by the Department of Defense to improve the management of the Autonomic Logistics Information System, the system is not proceeding at a pace that will ensure capability to support demands for data and information for rapid aircraft turnaround and efficient maintenance operations.”

Pratt & Whitney sold 51 F-135 engines to the Pentagon last year and 16 so far this year.

“If the quantity of jets were reduced, it would similarly lead to a reduction in engine orders,” said Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates. “However, we do not anticipate a reduction in the planned quantities of either the aircraft or engine. The program remains a top priority for the government, partner nations and international customers, and we remain committed to delivering an affordable and dependable product.”

Joe DellaVedova, public affairs officer for the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office, said he is confident the Department of Defense will be able to certify the computer’s software is combat-ready by the bill’s deadline, the end of 2016.

“We welcome Congress’ oversight and we will do all we can to support the Defense Department and the warfighter and meet our obligations,” DellaVedova said.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said Congress’ practice of attaching strings to F-35 funding has become “an annual ritual” that may slow the program, but won’t derail it.

“Through its history, Congress has imposed limitations on how much can be spent until certain problems are fixed, and this is just the latest,” Thompson said.

But the challenges facing the F-35 program are mounting.

A recent Pentagon inspector general report on the engine determined oversight by the Joint Program Office was insufficient and safety requirements were not met. The program office “did not ensure that Pratt & Whitney proactively identified, elevated, tracked, and managed (engine) program risks, in accordance with the risk management plan,” the inspector general report said.

That report came on the heels of an April 14 Government Accountability Office study that detailed a series of problems with the planes, beside the “software challenges.”

“The F-35 engine reliability is not improving as expected and will take additional time and resources to achieve reliability goals,” the GAO report said

In response, the House Armed Services Committee is seeking another study of the F-35 engine. The Senate has not begun work on it’s defense spending bill, but it is expected to also set conditions on the F-35 program.

Bill’s uncertain future

The defense appropriations bill includes billions of dollars to build two Virginia-class submarines next year at Connecticut’s Electric Boat facility and money to continue developing a new generation of nuclear submarines that will replace the aging Ohio-class ballistic-missile boats.

But the appropriations committee did not put that money in a fund created last year, called the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” that aims to fund the Ohio-class replacement submarine outside the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

Supporters want the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund to be funded from surplus money the Pentagon finds in other accounts. That would spare the Navy’s shipbuilding budget from the cost of paying for an expensive new fleet of nuclear submarines.

The defense spending bill also included $1.6 billion for 102 Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and millions of dollars more to continue work on a new presidential helicopter and a fleet of search and rescue helicopters for the Air Force. Sikorsky won the contract for both chopper programs.

But the company announced about 1,400 layoffs on Tuesday, about 180 of those in Connecticut, the result of closing a plant in Bridgeport and consolidating operations in Stratford.

“I am deeply troubled that Sikorsky is continuing to lay off members of its Connecticut workforce,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. “These layoffs devastate these workers’ lives and those of their families, while hurting our community.”

The defense spending bill contained a provision sponsored by DeLauro aimed at helping Sikorsky. It would bar the Pentagon from purchasing helicopters from Russian arms company Rosoboronexport for delivery to the Afghan Armed Forces.

“We cannot support Russian jobs and the Russian interest at the expense of America’s interest and workers,” DeLauro said.

In 2011 the DOD entered into a contract with Rosoboronexport for 63 Mi-17V-5 helicopters. Those choppers, which Sikorsky wanted to build, may have all been delivered.

At the end of October, Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC) announced the deal had been concluded. The Pentagon has not confirmed this.

The defense spending bill, which is expected to come up for a vote in the House of Representatives this month, is usually easily approved with bipartisan support.

But the fate of the bill is less certain this year because it has provoked a veto threat from the White House because it would boost a war-funding account by $38 billion to get around the military budget’s spending caps.

Busting the caps would result in across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. The White House wants the Republican-led Congress to renegotiate the 2011 budget agreement that established the budget caps and sequestration.

In a letter to Congress this week, Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan wrote that “the decision to circumvent rather than confront sequestration harms national security” by lowering available money for State Department and other nondefense security agencies.

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About Ana Radelat

Ana is a longtime Washington correspondent who has won numerous awards, including from The Associated Press and Gannett, has written for more than a dozen newspapers, including USAToday; The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger; the Shreveport (La.) Times; and the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. She’s also been a regular contributor to other publications, including the Miami Herald and Advertising Age. Some of the stories Ana has broken focused on the strategies of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Sen. Trent Lott’s fall from power and questionable Hurricane Katrina contracts. A regular contributor to WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio, a partner of The Mirror, Ana is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism. E-mail her at aradelat@ctmirror.org.

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