The cost of the U.S. Defense Department's most expensive weapons program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, declined by 1 percent in the past year to $391 billion, and lawmakers remain concerned about its software.
The estimated price tag to develop and build 2,457 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets includes $326.9 billion for air frames and $64.3 billion for engines, according to newly released figures from the Pentagon. The combined amount is $4.5 billion, or 1.1 percent, less than an estimate of $395.7 billion released in March 2012.
The decline was attributed in part to revised labor rates charged by the prime contractor -- Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. -- and its subcontractors, according to the Defense Department.
"This is the first year a cost reduction was noted," Laura Siebert, a spokeswoman for Lockheed, said in an e-mailed statement. "We will work with the F-35 Joint Program Office to implement further cost saving measures, which will result in additional significant decreases to the total program cost."
The F-35 is among a Pentagon portfolio of 78 weapons programs projected to cost a total of $1.66 trillion. That's a 2.7 increase in cost from last year's projection of $1.62 trillion for 83 systems. Despite the modest rise, none of the programs were flagged for having significant cost overruns.
The figures were released the same week a Republican-led subcommittee in the House of Representatives voted to require that Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, create an independent panel to review the F-35's software development and submit a report on its status to congressional defense committees by March 3, 2014.
The House Armed Services' tactical air and land forces subcommittee, led by Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, included the language in its draft of the 2014 defense authorization bill, which sets policy goals and spending targets for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Kendall himself has said the amount of code still needed to be written creates "some risks" and Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the service's F-35 program manager, has said he's concerned the slow pace of software development may delay the delivery of the most lethal version of the fighter jet beyond 2017.
That model of the aircraft, known as 3F, is designed to be equipped with a suite of internal and external weapons, including the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, laser-guided Paveway II bomb, Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile and infrared Sidewinder missile.
The Pentagon in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 plans to spend $8.4 billion to buy 29 F-35 Lightning IIs, including 19 for the Air Force, six for the Marine Corps and four for the Navy, according to the budget request released last month. The plane is designed to replace such aircraft as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18 and AV-8B.
Lockheed Martin this month released video of the first-ever vertical takeoff conducted by an F-35B, a version of the plane that can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane, which is being developed for the Marine Corps.