Pratt & Whitney will be the sole provider of the F135 military jet engine. COURTESY / Lockheed Martin
An F-35A tests its gun in the air for the first time last week over California.
An F-35A tests its gun in the air for the first time last week over California. U.S. Air Force

Washington – For years, the Pentagon was inflexible when talking about the number of F-35s it wants to buy — 2,443 — pushing back against any suggestions that it should trim that shopping list. But no more.

The high price tag of the F-35, a Lockheed Martin aircraft whose engine is made by Pratt & Whitney, has made some Pentagon officials consider whether the Defense Department can afford as many of the Joint Strike Fighters as they had once planned.

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.”

When asked by the same committee: “Do you believe the Navy can afford and needs to procure 310 more F-35Cs with a procurement cost of over $42 billion?”  Chief Naval Officer Adm. John Richardson said he would work to “re-validate the appropriate number of aircraft the Navy requires.”

Plans right now are for the Navy to purchase 340 F-35Cs, the version of the plane designed to operate from aircraft carriers. The Marines and Air Force would receive different versions of the fighter plane. Other versions of the Joint Strike Fighter are being sold to U.S. allies.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the head of Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent critic of the F-35 program, said the numbers the Pentagon has been quoting are inflated.

“There’s just not going to be that many,” McCain said.

In an interview, McCain said the Pentagon has to look “realistically” at how many weapons systems it can afford.

“The question is, at the present cost, can we afford as many F-35s?” he asked.

McCain said he will press the Pentagon to determine how many planes the services need.

Congress has not finished work on a final defense budget for 2016, likely to be part of a huge omnibus spending bill that would fund all of the federal government.

The Pentagon expects to get authorization and funding for 66 F-35s in fiscal 2016. That would be 44 for the Air Force, 15 for the Marines and four for the Navy.

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 costs about $129 million.

McCain said he would not seek to trim the number of those planes, but wants to address the program more broadly n the long-term.

As a response, Lockheed Martin said, “the F-35 Program is often reviewed by different government agencies.”

“At this time, the official U.S. program of record remains at 2,443 aircraft,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement.

A Heavy Helmet

Besides production delays and cost overruns, the F-35 has had a number of operational glitches, including a Pratt & Whitney-made engine that caught fire – a problem the Pentagon said has been fixed – and troubles with the computer system and the pilot’s helmet. The helmets, which give pilots night vision, a 360-degree view and “unprecedented situational awareness,” according to Lockheed Martin, now cost about $400,000 each.

The latest setback was discovered using dummies — lightweight pilots wearing the heavy helmet could break their necks if they eject. Pilots weighing less than 136 lbs. have been barred from flying the F-35 for two years until the ejection problem is fixed.

That could add to the cost of the plane. There are other reasons an expensive aircraft may soon be even more expensive.

The Liberal Party’s win in Canada’s elections last month means new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is likely to keep a campaign promise to cancel an order for 65 F-35s for that nation.

Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, F-35 Joint Program Office chief, said that will jump the price of the F-35 for the Pentagon and other international partners by about $1 million  each.

“If any partner or any service…takes airplanes out, the price of the airplane” will rise, Bogdan testified at an Oct. 21 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

So the price of each Joint Strike Fighter could rise if the Pentagon reduces its buy.

Dan Grazier, a fellow at the Center for Defense Information for the Project on Government Oversight, said it’s likely, and necessary, for the Defense Department to cut back on its ambitions regarding the F-35.

“We always knew this would be coming,” Grazier said of the reassessment. “Because the F-35 is so expensive. It’s likely we are not going to see the same numbers (the Pentagon) has been quoting for year.”

While the F-35 program may be trimmed, Grazier said it would not be eliminated because the Joint Strike Fighter is “politically engineered” to attract as much support as possible in Congress.

F-35 program involves more than 1,200 domestic suppliers in 49 states – and dozens of congressional districts. Lockheed Martin said the program generates more than 129,000 direct and indirect jobs and $380 billion in economic impact.

“They’ll beat up on it a bit, but nobody wants to kill it,” Grazier said of lawmakers in Congress.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, thinks differently.

“To say we can’t afford the F-35 is really, in a way, to say we can’t be a world-class superpower,” Thompson said.

He said the Pentagon has re-validated its need for the F-35 before –and come up with the same number, 2,443.

“I think there will be a continuing debate about the F-35 numbers, but in the end, there will be more F-35s than are now planned,” Thompson 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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