Days after the U.S. Defense Department signaled an improving relationship with Lockheed Martin Corp. over the cost of the F-35 fighter jet, Sen. John McCain called the program "one of the great national scandals."
McCain, a Republican from Arizona and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate, was speaking during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to consider the nominations of several White House appointments, including Deborah Lee James to become the next secretary of the Air Force.
McCain criticized the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as the government's first trillion-dollar acquisition program (including sustainment costs). Its repeated cost overruns "have made it worse than a disgrace," he said. Despite recent efforts to reduce prices on the next batch of aircraft, "it's still one of the great, national scandals that we have ever had, as far as the expenditure of taxpayers' dollars are concerned," he said.
McCain, who also noted that the Navy's new USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier is more than $2 billion over budget, was responding to James' comment that the current budget environment is "chaotic" and makes planning difficult.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, who oversees the F-35 program, this week said the relationship between the service and Lockheed — the plane’s manufacturer and the world’s biggest defense contractor — along with engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, part of United Technologies Corp., is “orders of magnitude” better than it was a year ago.
“I’m encouraged by where we are today,” he said Sept. 17 at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition at National Harbor, Md. “I’d like to be a little further along.”
The comments were a stark contrast to those Bogdan made at the same forum last year, when he called the relationship the “worst I’ve ever seen.” This year, Bogdan indicated his previous remarks were deliberate. “I threw a hand grenade into the crowd … that was intended,” he said.
At the hearing, McCain also pressed James on the issue of sexual assaults in the military. The Air Force, in particular, has faced criticism over a spate of high-profile sexual assault scandals.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response branch, was arrested and charged with sexual battery in May after allegedly groping a woman outside a strip club near the Pentagon. A month earlier, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, ignited a firestorm when he overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson III, a fellow fighter pilot who was accused of fondling the victim as she slept in his guest bedroom.
"Can this committee have confidence that this is one of your highest priorities and that you can come to this committee and present to all of us a plan and a policy that will put this issue on a sharp decline and lead to a renewed confidence in the American people that young women who join the United States Air Force will have confidence that they will not be subject to a sexual assault?" McCain asked.
"This will be one of my top priorities," James replied. "I intended to work on it very, very hard and I absolutely welcome the opportunity to do that."
"Got any ideas?" McCain interrupted.
"One I put forth ... is to hold commanders more accountable, to include in their performance assessments a measure of the climate within their unit and how well they're doing," she replied. "Being a commander -- it's not an entitlement, it's an honor and a privilege, and if they're not living up to the measure, they need to go."
James most recently worked as an executive at the defense contractor SAIC Inc. and also served as a former assistant secretary of defense.