Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told House lawmakers Thursday that he supports the "concept" of a fifth-generation fighter, but he wavered more than any Pentagon official in recent history in questioning whether DoD can afford all three flavors of the F-35 Lightning II.
Appearing with Secretary Panetta before the House Armed Services Committee, Dempsey said "I'm concerned about the three variants, whether we can afford all three." In doing so, the chairman took a dramatically different line from other DoD leaders, saying not 'We must have the jets and we'll get their costs down,' but 'We need an airplane but we might not be able to buy the ones we're trying to roll out.'
Panetta, for his part, maintained his solid commitment to the F-35. "This is a remarkable airplane," he said. "It really does the job well." DoD officials today are trying to understand all the "issues involved" with reducing its costs and getting the advertised performance, he said.
Panetta was asked specifically whether the B's ship trials aboard the USS Wasp would get it off the "probation" imposed by former Secretary Gates. Panetta basically shrugged, acknowledging "probation" was as much a political phrase as an actual tool of managemnet.
"The term 'probationary' is out there, but what that means is, 'Give us a chance to test it,'" he said. "It it performs well, it'll make the grade."
Panetta also re-opened the door for the prospect that DoD could buy two engines for the F-35, an issue that drove his predecessor up the wall. Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett pointed out that Panetta and other DoD leaders have said that "competition" is a central tool for getting better deals, so if that's the case, why is the department balking at engine-maker GE's offer to pay its own money to develop its alternate engine?
Panetta also shrugged. "I'm a strong supporter of competition, but I don't want competition to cost me money," he said. "I want it to be efficient." As with DepSecDef Ash Carter, Panetta agreed he would hear GE's presentation about self-funding, but he offered no guarantees beyond just listening.
It isn't clear how serious DoD is about reviving the Engine Wars; it's possible Panetta and Carter's responses are part of a more polite strategy of placating members of Congress, GE and Rolls-Royce by using "strategic ambiguity." The companies need Congress and the Pentagon to agree to let them use U.S. government testing facilities and other equipment to continue work on the F136 engine, even if the work is funded privately, but neither lawmakers nor Panetta went into that level of detail on Thursday. GE has been making its self-funding offer for months, and if DoD officials haven't gotten a detailed brief yet, it may mean they're in no hurry to do so.