WASHINGTON - Senators sought cost-cutting opportunities Wednesday in the Pentagon's $400 billion program for the next-generation F-35, a fighter jet with a troubled testing record that military leaders said America couldn't afford not to build.
Chairing the hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin lamented that the F-35 already has cost taxpayers billions more than what Congress signed up for more than a decade ago. The Illinois Democrat asked military leaders to justify costs that have soared more than 70 percent and estimates that the entire program could exceed $1 trillion over 50 years.
"The Joint Strike Fighter program has had more than its share of problems over the last decade," Durbin said. "Frankly, its history reads like a textbook on how not to run a major acquisition effort."
The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, and it has been troubled by schedule delays and cost overruns. The developer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., is building different versions for the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to replace Cold War-era aircraft such as the Air Force F-16 fighter, the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet and the Marines' EA-6B Prowler and AV-8B Harrier. International partners, including Britain, also are in line to buy F-35s.
Costs vary by the features in each model of the plane, but can reach $169 million per unit. An F/A-18 Super Hornet can cost half that much.
President Barack Obama's budget request for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 calls for spending $8.7 billion to develop, test and buy 29 aircraft. In total, the Pentagon envisions purchasing more than 2,400 F-35s.
Leaders of the U.S. military's different branches stressed that costs were now decreasing.
Pentagon acquisitions chief Frank Kendall said that with the plane 90 percent developed and testing almost half-done, officials were still focusing on creating a more stable design that would help bring production costs down.
"Indications are that this time these efforts are succeeding, but we still have a lot of work left to do," he told a Senate appropriations subcommittee. Kendall, who once criticized the decision to produce the F-35 ahead of its testing as "acquisition malpractice," said stopping production while all problems were worked through would have resulted in significant further costs and disruption.
Asked by Durbin whether the program was now "too big to fail" or "too big to cancel," Kendall said no program enjoyed such status.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said his service couldn't afford not to build the plane if the U.S. is to maintain the air superiority it has enjoyed since World War II and prepare for emerging global threats.
Adm. Jonathan Greenert of the Navy, whose F-35s will be made to take off from the short runways on aircraft carriers, said software and other costs could still pose problems for the program.