The Pentagon will propose spending about $9.2 billion to buy 29 Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) F-35 jets in its fiscal 2013 budget, 13 fewer than previously planned, U.S. officials said.
The reduction is part of a decision to delay purchasing 179 of the Joint Strike Fighters beyond 2017 to continue development, testing and correction of deficiencies, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday in advance of a Defense Department announcement.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is scheduled to outline the Department of Defense budget proposal today at the Pentagon, part of an effort to cut $488 billion, or 8.5 percent, from $5.62 trillion in spending that had been planned for 2012-2021.
Beyond the next budget year, the Pentagon’s previous plan to purchase 62 F-35s in fiscal 2014 is being reduced to 29, according to budget data. The request for 2015 is dropping to 44 from 81, and the planned purchase for 2016 will decline to 61 from 108.
The delay marks the third consecutive year the Pentagon has reduced its annual requests for F-35s in the $382 billion program. The number of planes sought was cut by 122 in February 2010 and 124 last year. Even with the latest cuts, Panetta still plans the eventual purchase of 2,443 production aircraft, according to the officials.
While Lockheed Martin won’t “speculate on what Secretary Panetta will announce,” the company understands “the challenge our customers face in balancing national security priorities with the fiscal reality,” Jennifer Whitlow, a spokeswoman for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, said in an e-mail.
“We will continue to work closely with the DoD to implement any changes to the F-35 production plan” as cost- effectively as possible, she said.
Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense company, fell 51 cents to $81.73 yesterday in New York trading and has risen 3.4 percent in the past year.
“My department is committed to the development of the F-35,” Panetta said during a Jan. 20 visit to the F-35 test facility at Naval Air Station Patuxent in Maryland. He said the aircraft is “absolutely vital to maintaining our air superiority.”
The F-35 delays are consistent with the Nov. 29 conclusions of a team of defense test, systems engineering and structural experts. It said Pentagon officials should give “serious reconsideration” to the purchase rate because the aircraft’s basic design has proved more unstable during testing than anticipated.
‘Lack of Confidence’
The group identified 13 current or likely test issues of varying severity, which together result “in a lack of confidence” in the aircraft’s “design stability.” The issues include the Navy version’s tailhook for carrier landings, the system for dumping extra fuel on landing approach and excessive aircraft shaking during flight.
The instability has already resulted in more retrofits and changes than planned with “the most challenging portions of flight tests ahead,” according to the 20-page report prepared for acting Pentagon weapons buyer Frank Kendall. A stable aircraft design is less likely to require costly changes as test issues emerge.
Still, the team said that it found “no fundamental design risks sufficient to preclude further production” of aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Separately, the Pentagon’s top weapons program found this month the F-35 had “mixed results” in tests last year of its flight characteristics and combat systems.
Director of Operation Test and Evaluation Michael Gilmore wrote in his annual report that the three aircraft versions matched or exceeded the program’s restructured plan for tests designed to evaluate flying qualities.
Flights designed to accomplish discrete events to demonstrate the aircraft’s war-fighting systems, such as navigation, enemy identification and targeting, fell behind 11 percent for the Air Force and 9 percent for the Marine Corps versions. The Navy’s aircraft-carrier version is 32 percent ahead of schedule, according to the report.
“Development, integration and flight testing of the most complex elements of mission systems lie ahead,” Gilmore wrote.
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