UPDATE: White House Issues NO Veto Threat Over F-136.
The Navy's top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, used the roll-out ceremony of the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter to send a stark message about the planes to Lockheed Martin and its suppliers: "They must -- they absolutely must -- be delivered on time and on budget.
The reason is simple. The Navy's F/A-18s are being flown at higher rates than originally planned and they are wearing out. Several senior defense lawmakers have been pressing the Navy to admit to a "fighter gap" and commit to buying more F/A-18s but the service has essentially pointed to the F-35C and said, we are buying that plane and it will be on time. Roughead noted this during his roll-out speech, saying the F-35 "will relieve our aircraft as they age out."
I asked the admiral about the study by the Program Analysis and Evaluation office at the Pentagon which found that there is no fighter gap if current US capabilities are analyzed. The Pentagon has refused to share this report with Capitol Hill, according to aides. Roughead admitted he was familiar with the report, which he would not discuss, but said nothing had been decided and nothing would be until the Quadrennial Defense Review had chewed the issue over and come up with a recommendation.
In other JSF news, the program's top officer, Marine Brig. Gen. David Heinz, took Pratt and Whitney to task for quality control problems with its F-135 engine that have resulted in up to 50 percent of parts being thrown away because they do not meet the high standards required by the JSF program. "I am pushing very hard on Pratt to do better," Heinz told me when I asked him about cost increases in the engine program. He said he expects Heinz to improve to the point where 80 percent of parts meet his standards. Heinz's criticism come at a crucial point in the debate over the second engine program, with the Obama administration pressing to kill the F-136 and the Senate having voted last week to do just that.
Heinz would not be drawn on whether he supported a second engine program, which Congress says is necessary to spur competition and lower costs. When I pressed him, Heinz noted that there are historic tests of engine competition, a clear reference to the famed engine wars of the F-16 program. If congressional aides or their bosses were to press him for an answer consistent with his best military judgment I bet he would tell them they need a second engine program to keep the heat on Pratt.
And the White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy in which it repeated its F-22 veto threat but it did not directly threaten a presidential veto. Instead, it included very carefully calibrated language stating that the "president's senior advisors would recommend" he veto the House defense spending bill should funding for the F-136 engine "seriously disrupt the F-35 program." That's a lot of qualifiers and removes the sting of the direct threat of a presidential veto.
Full disclosure: Lockheed Martin flew myself and some other journalists to Fort Worth for the event on one of their planes and put us up at a hotel.