The U.S. Defense Department is rethinking how many F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets it plans to buy as part of its most expensive weapons acquisition program.
The Pentagon officially plans to purchase a total of 2,457 F-35s, including 14 development aircraft, at an estimated cost of $391 billion, according to acquisition documents published in December and released in April.
But that quantity may change as automatic spending caps force officials to make trade-offs between investing in future technology and responding to current threats, from pro-Russian separatists in Europe, to territorial disputes involving China in Asia, to Islamic militants in the Middle East.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, nominated by the Obama administration to replace Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he retires in a few months, this week said the eventual size of the F-35 fleet may change, as previously reported by Marcus Weisgerber of DefenseOne.
“Given the evolving defense strategy and the latest Defense Planning Guidance, we are presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number,” he said in written remarks submitted as part of his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lockheed Martin Corp., the world’s largest defense contractor, is building three models of the F-35 for the U.S. military, including the F-35A for the Air Force for use on conventional runways, F-35B for the Marine Corps for use on amphibious assault ships and the F-35C for the Navy for use on aircraft carriers.
In addition, the governments of eight countries are helping to fund development of the aircraft, including Britain, Canada, Australia, Norway, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands and Denmark. Yet many allies who committed to buying the stealthy fifth-generation fighters have in recent years scaled back their orders or rethought their plans.
Italy reduced its planned purchase of 131 aircraft to 90 aircraft and the Netherlands cut its order of 85 aircraft to 37 aircraft, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report. Canada is reconsidering whether to even buy the F-35 and Australia this week reportedly nixed its plans to purchase the F-35B jump-jet variant of the aircraft because doing so would have required too many modifications to its two largest assault ships.
To be sure, Dunford defended the F-35 and the current acquisition plan.
“With projected adversarial threats challenging our current capabilities in coming years, the Joint Strike Fighter is a vital component of our effort to ensure the Joint Force maintains dominance in the air,” he said. “Until the analysis is complete, we need to pursue the current scheduled quantity buy to preclude creating an overall near-term tactical fighter shortfall.”
The committee headed by Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and a frequent critic of the F-35 program and other big-ticket acquisition programs, had asked the general whether the Pentagon can afford spending as much as $15 billion a year on the aircraft over the next couple of decades for a design that will be 30 years old at the time of completion.
Dunford replied, “Fifth-generation fighter aircraft, including the F-35, are critical as we contend with the technological advancements of near-peer competitors. We must ensure that we do not allow shortfalls in fighter capability or capacity to develop. The Department has been working diligently to make the overall cost per F-35 more affordable. Additionally, there will continue to be critical updates throughout the life cycle of the F-35 that will ensure the platform maintains a tactical advantage.”