The new defense bill provides money for 79 F-35s with Pratt & Whitney engines. Lockheed Martin photo
The F35A
The F35A Lockheed Martin photo

Washington – Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose engines are produced by Pratt & Whitney, recently held a glitzy reception in the atrium of the Rayburn House Office Building, complete with a buffet and the chance to “fly” the F-35 in a cockpit simulator, to press home a point – don’t cut funding for the program.

The F-35 faces a host of challenges. A recent Pentagon report detailed significant technical and design issues, including engine problems and serious computer glitches. It is already notorious for its cost-overruns and years of delay.

But some say the greatest danger to the F-35 program this year, which will have a ripple effect on the operations at Pratt & Whitney, is a looming congressional battle over Pentagon spending.

That’s why Lockheed Martin showed off its high tech “Lightning” jet – whose enemy-evading capabilities were displayed on a huge screen — on Capitol Hill.

Lockheed Martin also stepped up a lobbying campaign that includes mobilizing F-35 subcontractors to contact federal lawmakers, asking them to fully fund the program.

Because of its expense, the Joint Strike Fighter is considered more vulnerable than other weapons programs in Congress’ impending fight over the budget and the threat of sequestration — across the board spending cuts that would be imposed if Congress exceeds statutory caps on discretionary spending.

The Pentagon budget President Obama proposed to Congress exceeds the caps by $35 billion. It asks Congress to fund 57 F-35s this year, 44 of them for the Air Force, at a cost of $10.6 billion. That’s nearly 15 percent of the Pentagon’s major weapons acquisition budget.

According to the Pentagon, each F-35A sold to the Air Force costs about $108 million. One Marine Corps F-35B, which has short takeoff and vertical landing capability, costs about $134 million. A single Navy F-35C, which is designed for carrier operations, costs about $129 million.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, said the costs, which have doubled over time, make the F-35 a target.

“If there is sequestration, there will be a reduction in the number of F-35s,” Thompson said. He predicted the 44 the Air Force hoped to receive in fiscal year 2016, which begins on Oct. 1, would drop to 30.

Lockheed’s pitch is that anything spent on the F-35 is money well spent.

Lorraine Martin, general manager of the F-35 Lightning II Program for Lockheed Martin, reminded the crowd at the company’s Capitol Hill reception that the F-35 program involves more than 1,200 domestic suppliers in 49 states and Puerto Rico and generates more than 129,000 direct and indirect jobs and $380 billion in economic impact.

Wide Base of Support

F-35 contractors and subcontractors are spread out over 45 states, ensuring that members of Congress across the nation have an interest in keeping the project going.

Some of those lawmakers belong to the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. John Larson, D-1st District.

Larson said representatives from 146 companies involved in the F-35, including Pratt & Whitney and several others from Connecticut, came in for Lockheed Martin’s event and to hold about 70 meetings with House and Senate members about the jet’s budget last week.

A deal between Senate Democrats and House Republicans eliminated sequestration last year, allowing the Pentagon to consider ramping up production.

“We could finally see the light of day,” Larson said.

But unless another deal is reached, sequestration will be imposed “and that will be a disaster,” Larson said. “Hopefully, because of all the noise that’s being made, some compromise can be reached.”

Larson is one of the F-35’s biggest boosters. But he conceded “the program has not been without its bumps in the road.”

And its critics.

Those include Mandy Smithberger, a defense analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO.

“The F-35 continues to fail the most basic requirements for combat aircraft and common sense,” Smithberger said. “Despite reforms, the F-35 continues to be unaffordable, its engines continue to be susceptible to fire, and the Pentagon continues to misrepresent its performance.”

Engine Troubles

The engine of an F-35 failed and started a fire as it was taking off last June, grounding all planes for about three weeks. The engine’s fan overheated because of excessive friction and broke apart, sending pieces into the fuel tank.

Pratt & Whitney has temporarily fixed the problem and is working on a permanent solution.

In the meantime, F-35s are required to have engine inspections after 13 hours of flight, and restrictions were imposed on maximum speeds and acceleration.

The engine fire was among dozens of problems with the F-35 detailed in a recent report by the Pentagon’s Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E.

Perhaps the major problem centered on the plane’s “Block 2B” software system, responsible for the F-35s warfare capabilities. Defects were found in the software’s navigation and targeting systems.

Then there’s the problem with the fuel tank. The report said the F-35 would be vulnerable to lightning if it were forced to fly twice in a 12-hour span, unless the fuel tanks were frequently “purged” with nitrogen.

A glitch in the flight control system makes it difficult for the F-35 to attack at certain angles “during intense aerial conditions” and the high-tech helmet worn by the plane’s pilots, which allows them to see through the “skin” of the plane, faltered, especially in combat situations.

The F-35 program’s partner countries, which include the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway, are keenly watching development of the planes.

“I am not a salesman for the F-35,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 program, told a group of reporters last week.

But the Defense Department is a huge supporter of the plane.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Pentagon’s F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, said the DOT&E report was a “snapshot in time” based on information collected in November that is now five months old. He said many of the problems identified in the report have been fixed and others will be.

“The F-35 is still in its developmental phase,” DellaVedova said. “This is the optimal time to discover issues through testing so we can provide solutions early, and deliver an extremely capable and lethal aircraft to the warfighter.”

He said F-35 testing is about 60 percent complete. He also said plans by the Marines to go operational with their F-35s in July, despite software problems, is evidence the F-35 program is on track.

Larson also said many of the plane’s malfunctions have been solved.

“We’re over the hump with the engine mishap,” Larson said. “The program is moving forward.”

Larson also said Lockheed’s announcement that the cost of producing all 1,700 planes the Pentagon wants to buy has dropped by $60 billion should allay some concerns.

But Smithberger said production of the F-35 should stop until all the problems are fixed.

“But there aren’t enough votes (in Congress) to stop the program,” she said.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the new chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has called the F-35 program “a great national disgrace,” chiefly because of its cost overruns.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a former Army helicopter pilot, tried in the last Congress to freeze funding of the F-35 program until the Pentagon certified that certain problems were fixed.

But there was little political support for the effort.

Still, Smithberger says the F-35 is vulnerable.

“At some point this program is going to be curtailed because it’s too expensive,” she said.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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