Pressure on Lockheed Over F-35 Mandatory, General Says

President Barack Obama’s nominee for Air Force chief of staff said today it’s “mandatory” that the Pentagon put pressure on Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) to control costs for its F-35 fighter jet.

“ Our manufacturing process, our assembly line, is not up to speed and running to the level we’d hope it would be at this point in time,” General Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee today at his confirmation hearing.

This means “we have not been able to build and deliver jets on schedule or on an accurately predicted cost,” Welsh, now commander of the U.S. Air Force in Europe, said today.

Welsh is familiar with weapons acquisition as a former chief of Air Force fighter and bomber programs. In 2003 and 2004, he oversaw the F-22’s development when that Lockheed jet had software failings that had to be overcome before full production.

Pentagon officials have promised Congress they would get tougher in negotiations with Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor. The first four contracts for 63 F-35s are exceeding their combined target cost by $1 billion, according to congressional auditors.

“Cost is a major concern,” Welsh said today of the $395 billion development and acquisition program, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons project.

‘Stay Focused’

“If we can’t clearly identify how much this airplane will cost to buy and to fly after we acquire it, then we really have no idea how many airplanes we can afford or how many we should expect to receive,” he said.

“Pressure on the company, on the acquisition process internal to the department is mandatory,” Welsh said. “We have to stay focused and if confirmed, that would be a daily event for me,” said Welsh.

Even so, Welsh listed the F-35 as the service’s top modernization priority, along with the Boeing Co. (BA)’s KC-46 tanker and the new Long Range Strike bomber.

“There’s some good things happening,” he said. “The aircraft that have been delivered, we’ve flown almost 1,900 hours” and the F-35 Air Force variant “is performing very well in the test programs,” he said. “I am excited about the airplane.”

The Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 of the planned 2,443 production aircraft, which include versions for the Navy and Marine Corps.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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