The head of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program says the fifth-generation aircraft is past the "slow and steady progress" of development stage and is now all about continuing modernization of the aircraft.
The acquisition effort has reached the point where officials see production in the next few years ramping up from about 30 to 40 planes a year to "something over 120 a year," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan during a presentation Tuesday at the Air and Space Conference near Washington, D.C.
The service is also at a point where it needs to begin building up resources in Europe and the Pacific to base and maintain the coming Joint Strike Fighter fleet, Bogdan said. With more more than 130 F-35s in the field, the Air Force needs to begin setting up sustainment facilities not only in the U.S., but also in Europe and the Pacific, he said.
The Pentagon's largest acquisition program is "rapidly growing and accelerating," but will hit a major speed bump should Congress fail to pass a 2016 defense budget and end up with another continuing resolution, he said.
The limitations imposed with a continuing resolution will reduce by about two-thirds what the Air Force intended to spend next year on transitioning from a development program to one focused on modernization, Bogdan said. It will also impact the Lot 10-series of aircraft – about 19 planes already being built – by reducing what it can afford to spend, he said.
"If we're on a continuing resolution in '16, the amount of money we have to spend" will be dramatically reduced to roughly the same $40 million it spent in 2015, Bogdan said. "That's about a third of what we intended to spend in '16 to do that planning."
More pressing still, is that another CR will make it impossible for the Air Force and Marine Corps to buy all the Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35s currently being built for a 2017 delivery. The Air Force has 16 planes in the Lot 10 group and the Marine Corps three, Bogdan said. The 19 planes, all told, would cost about $2 billion, he said.
"So if we're capped … those 16 Air Force A-model planes and those three Marine Corps planes, they're orphans," he said. "I can't buy them. I won't have the authority or the money to buy them."
It could mean bumping the purchase to the next fiscal year – which will add to the costs, he said.
"I don't know what it would be, but you can bet it would not be the original cost of those airplanes," he said.