Pentagon Refutes Trump on F-35’s ‘Out of Control’ Costs

  • Trump has said ‘billions of dollars can and will be saved’
  • Completion of development flight-testing may be delayed

Inside the Costs of the F-35 Fighter Jet Program

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 fighter jet isn’t spiraling out of control as President-elect Donald Trump has said, according to Pentagon officials preparing to making their case to the new administration.

Critics of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons system ignore the progress made since the program was reset in 2011, when it was six years behind schedule and $13 billion over budget, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, who heads the office responsible for developing and acquiring the fighter jet, told reporters Monday.

“This program is not out of control,” Bogdan said. “Since 2011 we have basically been on schedule. Since 2011 we have basically been on budget.”

Trump has assailed the F-35’s costs on Twitter and at rallies in recent days as he vows to change the Defense Department’s business practices. “The F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Trump wrote last week on Twitter. “Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th,” inauguration day.

Completing Testing

But Bogdan also revealed a new, if minor, delay for Lockheed’s marquee jet during a briefing updating the F-35’s status, saying the Pentagon has directed the program office to plan for development flight-testing to end as late as May 2018 instead of the planned September 2017 completion date because of software delays and other test issues.

Bogdan told reporters he estimates flight testing could end by February 2018. Completing the flight test phase will cost an additional $532 million that will come from within the program or be repaid from the military services from F-35 funds borrowed years ago, he said.

In addition to criticizing the F-35, Trump has put Boeing Co. on notice that it must cut costs for the next Air Force One, and he has vowed to “impose a lifetime ban on people that give these massive contracts out or even small contracts” from going to work for defense contractors.

Bogdan said he already was barred for life from working for Lockheed’s F-35 division or joining the division of United Technology Corp.’s Pratt & Whitney that makes the fighter’s engines. He disputed Trump’s inference that revolving-door issues may have contributed to cost growth.

‘Overly Optimistic’

“The problems on this program, quite frankly” were “very simple,” Bogdan said. The Pentagon was “overly optimistic of the technical risk of building this leading-edge fighter. So we put unrealistic schedules and budgets together. And then when we ran into problems we did not manage them very well, and that has nothing to do with ethics.”

While defense companies stand to benefit from the big increase in military spending promised by Trump, they are also emblematic of the Washington establishment he railed against during the presidential campaign. The Defense Department plans to spend more than $14 billion annually for almost a decade on the F-35, and “with a history of overruns and delays, it’s the most obvious target,” said Richard Aboulafia, a defense analyst with Teal Group.

The $379 billion F-35, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, is the first jet created to serve the vastly different combat missions of the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and it has been plagued by malfunctions of its cutting-edge technology. The Pentagon’s top weapons tester, Michael Gilmore, has warned officials in at least four memos since August that the F-35’s development should be extended past next year because of continued deficiencies to its combat systems, weapons accuracy and air-to-ground gun.

Two of the three services have declared their versions of the F-35 as having initial combat capability as development winds down and Lockheed prepares to churn out the aircraft at high rates of production. Manufacturing costs are falling and the company has said it expects to assemble the aircraft for about $85 million apiece by decade’s end, comparable to the cost for current-generation fighters.

Lockheed and defense officials have been locked in negotiations over terms for the 10th and largest-yet order for the jets. The Pentagon provided the company with a $1.28 billion down payment in November to continue production while the two sides hammer out a contract valued as much as $7.19 billion for 90 aircraft.

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