Congressional defense advocates don't just want to keep DoD's budget at its current levels or better -- they want to be sure their home-state companies and programs keep or increase their slices of the pie. Case in point: The F-35 Lightning II, the biggest defense program in history, which represents hundreds of billions of dollars sluicing one way if it succeeds, and another way if it fails. F-35 advocates used Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to get DoD's incoming deputy secretary to reaffirm his commitment to their beloved bird, and opponents tried to use it to get him to give them an opening -- but both walked away disappointed.
North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan -- whose state is home to Marine Corps squadrons flying dangerously worn-out old F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers -- gave a soliloquy about the importance of the Marines' F-35B variant. There's no alternative to the B if the Marines are going to keep flying fast jets from amphibious ships, right? The B had some troubles in the past, but those are all smoothed out now, right? Then Hagan got to a direct question: If the B does well in its first flights on and off a Navy ship at sea this autumn, will the department lift its "probation" status?"
Incoming DepSecDef Ash Carter, a model of discretion, acknowledged there's a key requirement for the B, and that its performance was steadily improving over its two-year "probation" -- which, as we know, was mostly window dressing to placate F-35 skeptics. But the lifting of that window dressing is "conditions-based," Carter said, and if conditions warrant, the department will then decide whether to take the B off probation. He did not say definitively whether successful tests at sea will be enough to bring the B back into DoD's good graces.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who has urged Carter to do a better job of selling the need for the F-35, stopped by the hearing just briefly: He asked SASC chairman Sen. Carl Levin to enter copies of the letters he and Carter have exchanged about the program into the record; naturally, Levin agreed. (This gesture means nothing.) Then Cornyn ducked back out to attend another session, apparently confident the F-35 -- assembled outside Fort Worth -- was in good enough shape he didn't need to have another public exchange with Carter about how valuable it is.
But Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill -- whose home state produces Boeing's F/A-18E and F Super Hornets -- doesn't think the F-35 is so valuable. She called the Lightning II "the poster child for bad contracting," whereas the Super Hornet, at a bargain basement $57 million per copy, "is the poster child of good contracting." Given DoD's history of buying additional batches of Super Hornets despite its continued long-term commitment to the F-35, does that mean the Super Hornet continues to be a viable option for the department?
Carter, again dancing between the raindrops, said the Super Hornet's service has been "commendable," but he reminded McCaskill that DoD sees no alternative for the F-35. That may be so, but he also didn't rule out the prospect that the Navy could buy another batch of them in the event there are more delays with its F-35C model. Boeing has been enjoying success at the expense of the F-35 for years around the world, and it wants to keep up that game plan for as long as possible.
Whenever it arrives, the F-35's going to need an engine, and General Electric's offer to pay out of its own pocket for the development of its alternate F136 engine is still on the table, pointed out Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown. Where does DoD stand on that? Carter, ever cautious, said the Pentagon couldn't rule out anything as it tries to eliminate as much cost as possible from the F-35, but he said he didn't have any details beyond that. Carter said the department is willing to listen to the pitch from GE about self-funding work on the F136 -- but that's all.
Under Secretary Gates, the Pentagon was dead-set against building two engines for the F-35, and wouldn't even entertain discussions about whether GE could use government test and development facilities to continue work, even if it were footing the bill. So Carter's answer was a slight softening from that position, but it wasn't clear whether alternate engine advocates might be able to use that to get enough leverage for another attempt. What is clear is that as the Big Crunch approaches, there'll be a lot more of this kind of jockeying among congressional defense advocates, and their elbows might get much sharper.