- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

Lawmakers are worried about spiraling costs and growing delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, where cost overruns may have ballooned enough to trigger a series of legal steps needed to avoid outright cancellation.

The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, Ashton Carter, this week gave a closed-door briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee about the program, which at nearly $300 billion is the largest single acquisition in U.S. military history.

Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. John McCain said afterwards in a joint statement that they were “deeply concerned about the growing costs and apparent delays in the F-35 program.”

“Involved in today’s briefing were discussions of strategy to keep costs down and to have development brought back to its planned schedule,” read the statement by the committee’s chairman, Mr. Levin, Michigan Democrat, and the ranking Republican, Mr. McCain of Arizona.

The F-35 program - designed to build three versions of the single-engined, radar-avoiding fighter-bomber for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and for eight U.S. allies - is considered essential to replace the aging U.S. air fleet and maintain the nation’s air superiority. But it has been dogged by cost overruns and schedule delays.

At the Senate briefing, Mr. Carter and other officials reported closely held results of an independent assessment of the program, conducted by a group of defense officials and weapons experts called the Joint Evaluation Team, or JET.

A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment, but the trade publication Inside Defense quoted unnamed Defense officials as saying the JET assessment is highly pessimistic.

Mr. Carter told reporters at a small roundtable last month that the JET’s figures on cost and schedule were “drastically different” from the ones provided by the contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp.

“The JET [is] forecasting schedule delay, schedule slip and cost increases beyond those forecast by the program office and the contractor,” said Mr. Carter, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

A Lockheed Martin spokesman referred questions to the Pentagon.

“Most of the time [JET estimates] get ignored,” said Thomas Christie, the Pentagon’s former director of operational testing and evaluation, of such independent cost assessments. “And most of the time they turn out to be right.”

Mr. Carter said the JET’s figures were “highly credible” but declined to discuss specific numbers. “To the extent possible, one would like to end up somewhere in between … the contractor estimate and the JET estimate,” he said.

Under a law known as Nunn-McCurdy, named after former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and former Rep. Dave McCurdy, if the estimated costs of any weapons system rise more than 25 percent above the current baseline costs, the program must be canceled unless a series of measures are taken.

Defense officials must certify that the program is essential for national security; that there are no lower cost alternatives; and that reforms to the program will keep costs under control in future.

Experts and congressional officials said it was highly unlikely the program would be canceled.

“My impression is, Secretary [of Defense Robert M.] Gates and Undersecretary Carter are behind this program and committed to do whatever they need to make it work,” said Barry Watts, a retired fighter pilot and former head of the Pentagon’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation.

Mr. Watts, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a defense think tank, said it was unclear whether costs had risen enough to trigger the Nunn-McCurdy provision. If they had, “there will be pressure on Undersecretary Carter to make some adjustments to the program, perhaps by reducing the total U.S. buy,” he said.

Currently, the Pentagon plans to buy nearly 2,500 planes, about two-thirds for the Air Force, and the rest specially adapted versions for the Navy, Marines and allied countries.

Even if there is no Nunn-McCurdy breach, experts said, there is still enormous pressure on officials to keep the program’s costs under control, in part because President Obama has pledged to stop the endlessly spiraling weapons-acquisition costs.

“If a system is plagued by cost overruns, it should be reformed. No more excuses; no more delays,” Mr. Obama said in March. “The days of giving defense contractors a blank check are over.”

Loren Thompson, a defense industry analyst at the Lexington Institute, said defense officials had decided that “they need to put more money into the testing program to reduce risk” and therefore envisage “a one-year delay in getting to peak production.”

“You buy fewer aircraft in the early years,” he said, explaining the officials’ thinking, adding that the money be used to do more testing instead. “The more testing you do at the beginning, the less likely you are to face a nasty problem down the road.”

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