STOVL versions of the F-35. (Joint Strike Fighter Program)
WASHINGTON — In comments likely to please the program’s contractors, the incoming chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the Pentagon’s troubled F-35 program says there’s one thing Congress can do to avoid more problems: fully fund it.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was handed the panel’s AirLand subcommittee gavel Tuesday morning. By the afternoon, reporters already were peppering him with questions about his plans, which will include crafting parts of the full Armed Services Committee’s 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which deals with the U.S. military’s ground and air forces.
The AirLand subcommittee is among the most powerful on defense issues because of the role ground vehicles and aircraft play in America’s modern wars. The subpanel also could have a big say in whether problems with development of the Lockheed Martin F-35 are fixed in time for the planned buy to avoid further cuts.
“I’m a supporter of the Joint Strike Fighter,” Blumenthal told reporters Tuesday. “And I’ll continue to be. A lot of the problems have been resolved. I’m hoping it will [avoid] any further obstacles or funding challenges.”
Asked by Defense News what he thinks Congress can do to achieve that, Blumenthal was candid: “Well, we can make sure that the resources are there.”
What about closer scrutiny of a the tri-service, multination F-35 program, which has long been besieged by cost overruns and schedule delays caused by a slew of technical problems, including lingering questions about its complex helmet avionics systems and software?
“There is a need for oversight and continued scrutiny to make sure that the goal of air superiority is absolutely assured,” Blumenthal said. “That’s the goal of the Joint Strike Fighter.”
The program must deliver fighters “as cost effectively as possible,” he said.
But the Pentagon’s top tester and outside analysts suggest that hope has long since died.
In a recent report, the Defense Department’s Office of Test and Evaluation (OT&E) dubbed the F-35’s software suite as “unacceptable,” adding that ongoing software problems could further delaythe fifth-generation fighter entering operations.
Winslow Wheeler, a former congressional defense aide now with the Center for Defense Information, says a coming Pentagon estimate on the 50-year operating cost for the F-35 fleet will be “most important and revealing.”
“Will the new head of CAPE submit to the pressure to reduce that cost estimate?” he asked rhetorically in a recent email, referring to the Pentagon’s next Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation shop chief.
“Or will there be an acknowledgment that the costs will not be as low as previously predicted, based, in part, on the DOT&E insights and the inherent complexity of the F-35, which makes its O&S cost ... more like an F-22 as the comparison base than an F-16?”