Lockheed F-35 Faces ‘Significant Challenges,’ Panel Says

The Senate committee that approves defense spending said in a report today that “significant challenges remain” for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter even as progress is made.

The program “continues to experience considerable challenges with software development, system reliability and maintenance system development,” the Senate defense appropriations panel said in its report on the Pentagon’s $516 billion budget request for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee adopted the bill and the panel’s report.

The panel cut $80 million and six aircraft from the Pentagon’s initial $562 million request to start buying hardware for 42 aircraft that would be purchased in fiscal 2015. The Pentagon is planning an increase from the 29 planes that were requested, and approved by the committee, for fiscal 2014.

Given the “significant challenges,” a “large increase in the production of aircraft” to 42 from 29 “is not yet warranted” the defense panel said in its report.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s costliest weapon system, with an estimated price tag of $391 billion for a fleet of 2,443 aircraft, up 68 percent from the projection in 2001, as measured in current dollars. The rising costs and troubles in building the plane as it’s still being developed have led to criticism in Congress.

‘Close to Right’

“What we are trying to do is get it as close to right the first time as possible” rather than be forced to upgrade or repair aircraft after quantities are increased, Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and chairman of the defense subcommittee, said when asked about the reduction.

Durbin praised the concept behind the F-35 as an airframe that can be used by three military services.

Now “there are still many, many unanswered questions as to whether this Joint Strike Fighter will become a reality that can protect us,” Durbin said.

Separately, the committee directed the Pentagon to review whether the Air Force’s goal of buying 1,763 F-35s remains feasible.

“Given these times of fiscal austerity,” the Pentagon “should review the Air Force tactical fighter force mix,” according to the report.

The committee also deleted for now a Pentagon request for $10 million to evaluate how to integrate the B61 nuclear bomb on later F-35 versions because the requirement hasn’t been thoroughly vetted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s requirements group, it said.