by BRENDAN MCGARRY
A Republican-led defense panel in Congress handily rejected a proposal to withhold most funding for the F-35 fighter jet next year.
The House Armed Services Committee on June 5 voted 51–10 against the amendment sponsored by Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., while debating its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill. The legislation sets policy goals and spending targets for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
Calling it a “good-government issue,” Duckworth proposed freezing procurement funding for the Joint Strike Fighter program until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certified that the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp., fixed problems with the aircraft’s software and several pieces of hardware, including the helmet-mounted display, fuel dump system and arresting hook.
“I want contractors to be held accountable and I want to fix the technical problems before we give them another $6 billion of taxpayer money,” she said during the hearing. “There’s nothing wrong with flying before we buy. In fact, most of us test drive cars before we [buy].”
The Defense Department next year plans to spend $8.4 billion to buy 29 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, including 19 for the Air Force, six for the Marine Corps and four for the Navy. The funding includes $6.4 billion in procurement, $1.9 billion in research and development and $187 million in spare parts.
Duckworth said she has “serious concerns” that buying production models of the planes while they’re still being tested — a practice known in acquisition parlance as concurrency — has led to developmental problems and a 68-percent surge in the projected cost of the program.
The Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program, with an estimated cost of $391 billion to develop and build 2,457 aircraft.
Duckworth cited comments made last year by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, in which he criticized his own department’s decision to begin production of the single-engine jet years before its first test flight as “acquisition malpractice.”
Many of the aircraft’s most vaunted technologies “remain untested and unready,” Duckworth said. Flight testing of the software package designed for initial aircraft operations, known as Block 2B, was only 5 percent complete as of last month, she said.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the panel’s Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, said the amendment would effectively halt funding for the F-35 program, causing delays and additional cost increases.
“We believe that we address the issues with the F-35 in the mark,” he said.
Turner was referring to language his subcommittee drafted in the legislation that would order the Pentagon to establish an independent team of subject matter experts to review software development for the program and submit a report to lawmakers by March 3, 2014.
Turner also cited as evidence of progress in the program a March report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of congress, subtitled, “Outlook Is Improved, but Long-Term Affordability Is a Major Concern.”
The Pentagon last week announced that the Marine Corps will begin operational flights of the F-35 fighter jet in 2015, followed by the Air Force in 2016 and the Navy in 2019.