The F-35 fighter jet continues to be the U.S. Defense Department's highest acquisition priority despite looming budget cuts, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer said.
The stealthy, fifth-generation fighter, known as Lightning II and made by Bethesda, Md., Lockheed Martin Corp., is the military's most expensive weapons program, estimated to cost almost $400 billion to develop and build 2,457 aircraft.
The Joint Strike Fighter program began in the 1990s and has been plagued by cost overruns and delays. The price tag alone makes it a big target for budget cutters on Capitol Hill and in the Defense Department. Yet Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the Pentagon is still committed to the aircraft.
"The F-35 remains our highest priority," he said during a briefing Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
There are still a number of developmental issues yet to complete, Kendall said, such as upgrading the plane's software, improving the reliability of the aircraft and its components and enhancing the jet's logistics support system.
"We're at a point now where we need to get the job done," he said. "I'm feeling much more positive about the program than I was a couple of years ago."
Kendall's comments echoed those made by Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program manager, in September at the Air Force Association's annual conference. "I’m encouraged by where we are today," he said. "I’d like to be a little further along."
Bogdan's remarks were a stark contrast to those he made at the same forum last year, when he called the relationship with the world's largest defense contractor the "worst I’ve ever seen."
The Pentagon in late September finalized a deal with Lockheed for two contracts worth $7.1 billion for 71 more F-35 fighter jets. It's unclear whether cost reductions in the agreements are enough to appease critics of the program.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the 2008 Republican presidential candidate and the former top-ranking GOP member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently criticized the effort as the government’s first trillion-dollar acquisition program (including sustainment costs).
Its repeated cost overruns “have made it worse than a disgrace,” McCain said during a hearing on Capitol Hill. "It’s still one of the great, national scandals that we have ever had, as far as the expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars are concerned."
Kendall didn't specify how automatic budget cuts known as sequestration will impact funding for the F-35 program, only that the prospect of more reductions are forcing him to delay decisions on some weapons contracts.
"I am holding back a few things right now because of the uncertainty ... where I can defer some work and not make a financial commitment," he said. "We may not want to cancel them outright but we may want to defer them for a few years."
The Defense Department faces $500 billion in automatic cuts through fiscal 2021 under deficit-reduction legislation, including $52 billion in the current fiscal year. If lawmakers can't agree on an alternative plan to undo sequestration, the next three years or so are "going to be a very hard period," Kendall said.
As he was leaving the building, Kendall didn't say whether he would be interested in taking the No. 2 job at the Pentagon. He is rumored to be among those being discussed as a possible successor to Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who plans to retire next month.