- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2021

President Biden’s nominee to lead the Air Force said Tuesday that the best way to combat cost overruns with the troubled F-35 fighter jet program is to “continue to buy” more of them, setting up a potential clash with lawmakers who are deeply frustrated with the aircraft and its rising price tag.

Frank Kendall III, who previously has held numerous positions inside the Pentagon, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the F-35 is a “dominant weapon” and strongly suggested that he opposes a growing movement on Capitol Hill to slash funding for the program.

The $1.7 trillion F-35 initiative is designed to replace a number of legacy aircraft across the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy over the coming years.

“The F-35 is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world and will be so for quite some time. It’s a complex, expensive weapon, unfortunately, but it is a dominant weapon when it goes up against earlier-generation aircraft,” Mr. Kendall said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate panel.

Pressed on higher-than-expected prices and lengthy production delays, he argued that the Defense Department’s best option to lower staggering maintenance and upkeep costs is to buy more F-35s.

“The key to keeping the cost down in an air fleet is getting the numbers up,” he said. “There’s a very strong correlation between the size of the fleet and the cost to sustain the fleet. If there were one thing that I would think would drive cost down overall, it’s continue to buy.”

The Pentagon had planned to ultimately purchase as many as 2,500 planes from Lockheed Martin over the coming decades, though that number could change.

As of last month, there were about 400 F-35s in the air, according to Pentagon officials. That figure includes planes in the American military and partner nations that also have invested heavily in the aircraft.

Mr. Kendall’s strong backing of the F-35 puts him on a collision course with prominent lawmakers. Earlier this year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, said the F-35 has become a “rat hole” of endless spending, and that it’s time to move on to other projects.

Other lawmakers have warned that after this year, Congress is prepared to pull the plug on F-35 funding.

“Don’t expect more money. Do not expect to have more planes purchased than authorized in the president’s budget [this year]. That’s not going to happen,” Rep. John Garamendi, California Democrat, said at a House hearing last month.

Still, the program has many vocal defenders on Capitol Hill.

“The F-35, I believe, is the most capable and cost-effective aircraft that’s available out there today,” Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said at Tuesday’s hearing. “It has had its problems, but there is no other aircraft that offers the capability and capacity of the F-35 — at least that’s what we hear from the people who fly them.”

It’s billed as a fighter plane, but the F-35 also can handle surveillance and reconnaissance missions, provide close air support, take on enemy aircraft in the sky, conduct electronic warfare, and undertake a host of other tasks that make it a far more technologically advanced plane than virtually anything else in the world today.

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