Federal researchers say Air Force may have to cut back on F-35s

The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter

Lockheed Martin photo

The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter

Updated at 8:25 p.m.

Washington – Congressional researchers told the Air Force its ambitious modernization program will leave it strapped for money, and it may have to cut the number of F-35s it wants to buy.

A report by the Congressional Research Service said the Air Force has budgeted nearly $73 billion through Sept. 30, 2020, for nine programs, including a new bomber. Plans to purchase F-35s from Lockheed Martin, whose engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, represent 42 percent of that money

The report said the Air Force “is in the midst of an ambitious aviation modernization program, driven primarily by the age of its current aircraft fleets.”

The CRS said four major programs are in procurement – the F-35, the K-46A tanker, the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), and variants of the C-130 cargo aircraft. They are replacing planes, like the B-1 bomber, that have flown for decades.

“The need to replace several types of aircraft simultaneously poses challenges to future budgets, as the new programs compete with existing program commitments and normal program growth under a restricted service topline,” the report said.

The report said that to meet its modernization requirements the Air Force “may need to defer or delay other programs (including possibly reducing the quantity of aircraft already in procurement), or find other sources of funding to carry all its plans to fruition.”

The CRS said cutting procurement of the F-35 from 60 to 48 per year “would free up approximately $1 billion per year for other priorities.” The CRS also said this option could ultimately add to the cost of the program in the long-term.

The Air Force’s Joint Strike Fighter Program office did not have an immediate response.

Pratt & Whitney, in an emailed statement, said the company was “focused on delivering affordable, dependable F135 engines to our customers and keeping the F-35 program on track. We have met our cost reduction obligations with every contract lot, and the engines are performing well for our military customers. Sustaining the current production rate and accelerating engine production volumes will only help us keep the positive momentum we’ve gained on the F-35 program.”

To avoid budgetary “train wrecks,” the report said the Air Force could also do other things, including delaying the startup of new programs, such as the Long Range Bomber, which is projected to cost $60 billion for 100 warplanes. The bomber’s engines may be built by Pratt & Whitney, but the Pentagon has kept the suppliers and subcontractors on this Northrop Grumman contract a secret, citing security reasons.

The report also recommended creating a special fund to pay for the Long Range Bomber outside the Air Force’s procurement budget. It cited the creation of a National Sea-based Deterrence Fund by Congress to pay for the cost of the Ohio-class replacement submarine with general Pentagon funds instead of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

The report said development of the National Sea-based Deterrence Fund was based on two arguments, that the new nuclear submarine’s strategic deterrence mission is a naional mission, not unique to the Navy, and that funding the Ohio-class replacement “would preserve Navy shipbuilding funds for other Navy shipbuilding programs.”

“The same arguments could be applied to (the Long Range Strike Bomber),“ the report said.

The CRS report follows questioning by key congressional leaders and even Pentagon officials about whether the Air Force can afford to keep pace with its procurement plans for the F-35.

The Pentagon had been inflexible about the total number of F-35s it wants to buy — 2,443 — pushing back against any suggestions that it purchase fewer planes.

But Gen. Joseph Dunford, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee this summer that the Pentagon is “presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also has questioned how the Pentagon is going to be able to afford 2,443 F-35s, especially since the program has suffered major delays.

Earlier this month McCain told reporters that under the original contract with Lockheed Martin, 1,013 of the program’s 2,443 jets were supposed to be delivered by Sept. 30, 2016. But he said only 179 have been delivered.

That leaves more than 2,000 jets yet to complete. McCain said the Pentagon would have to buy 100 F-35s per year for more than 20 years at a cost of $10 billion to $12 billion a year, a scenario the senator said “seems unlikely.”

Congress has authorized the Pentagon to purchase 66 F-35s this fiscal year.

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