By Megan Eckstein
Senior defense appropriator Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) wrote to the head of the Joint Strike Fighter program to question whether the most recent fleet grounding was another in a line of setbacks that may prevent the program from meeting its delivery schedule going forward.
In a letter to Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, Program Executive Officer for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Moran asked for a brief on last month’s engine fire and subsequent fleet grounding. He noted recent statements indicating the engine fire may have been an isolated incident–Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told the House Armed Services Committee last week that early evidence suggested that– and asked for more information on why the grounding was needed as well as the sequence of events preceding the engine failure. (Defense Daily, July 10)
But Moran went on to say that despite repeated problems with the F-35 program, “it remains one of the few DoD programs whose budget continues to grow in the current environment of fiscal austerity. These latest concerns coupled with previously documented problems highlight the pitfalls of a concurrent development and procurement strategy, which not only forces costly modifications to production aircraft, but also inhibits meaningful operational testing, according to the Pentagon’s own Director of Operational Test and Evaluation in a report released last year.”
For all the progress that has been made in the program, including the start of nighttime training flights, improvements in the Helmet-Mounted Display and the re-engineering of the tail hook for the Navy’s carrier variant, Moran said he is still concerned. The military services are buying the planes before they finish testing, so every time a new problem arises in testing, the cost to retrofit the delivered planes grows even more.
The decision to ground the whole F-35 fleet “further delay[ed] operational testing as well as the aircraft’s European debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow in the United Kingdom. These limitations and delays effectively rule out combat training and ultimately risk still more costly delays and potential readiness gaps as the DoD seeks to retire its legacy aircraft,” Moran wrote.
The senior House Appropriations Committee member won’t be able to use the information to shape this year’s defense spending bill, which the full House already passed. But the Senate Appropriations Committee will meet this week to mark up its defense bill–the defense subcommittee will hold a markup Tuesday morning and the full committee will mark up the bill Thursday morning–so Moran could still shape the debate as the Senate crafts its bill and the two chambers work out the differences in their bills later this year.