The U.S. Congress is likely to continue supporting the F-35 stealth fighter jet, despite a recent setback involving an engine fire, the retiring chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said.
When asked what the state of political support in Congress was for the Joint Strike Fighter -- the Pentagon's most expensive weapons acquisition program -- Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, described it as "fairly strong, provided there's no major disruption."
Levin, 80, who met with defense reporters Wednesday in Washington and who plans to retire end his term ends in January, added, "The further along it gets, even though it's limping at times, the stronger it gets because you've got more invested in it."
The Defense Department plans to have a fix in place by the end of the year for a defective engine component linked to a recent fire in one of the planes that resulted in the temporary grounding and ongoing flight restrictions of the entire fleet.
The F-35 is made by Lockheed Martin Corp., the world's largest defense contractor, while the F135 engine is made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp. There are currently about 100 of the single-engine jets in the U.S. fleet and Pratt & Whitney has delivered roughly 150 of the engines.
The engine-maker has pledged to cover the cost of developing a replacement component for the propulsion system's fan section.
The setback caused the plane to miss its international debut in the United Kingdom this summer, which some suggested may lead to potential foreign buyers of the aircraft to second-guess their plans.
But just this week, the government of South Korea finalized plans to buy 40 F-35A conventional models in a deal potentially worth $7 billion. Deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2018.
South Korea had previously planned to buy 60 F-15SE, an upgraded version of the F-15 made by Boeing Co., rather than the F-35 or the Eurofighter made by Airbus SAS. But the country reversed course amid provocations by North Korea and opted for the radar-evading aircraft instead.
International sales are critical for the program to succeed and prevent costs from escalating even further.
The Joint Strike Fighter program is estimated to cost nearly $400 billion for 2,443 aircraft. Keeping the planes flying over the next half-century may cost another $1 trillion in sustainment.
Eight countries have committed to help develop the F-35, including the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Also, Israel, Japan and South Korea plan to buy production models of the aircraft.