By Tim Starks
A mysterious F-35 engine fire, the grounding of the fleet, a visit from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scheduled for Thursday and the resulting possible pullback from an international debut at a British air show have put the Joint Strike Fighter — the most expensive weapon system ever — in the, well, hot seat.
As flagged by CQ Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly at our sister blog CQ on Defense — for subscribers — House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., tweeted thusly on Wednesday:
— Buck McKeon (@BuckMcKeon) July 9, 2014
That’s a reference to a decision in 2011 to kill the alternative engine for the F-35, favored by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a cost-saving measure. The House voted to adopt an amendment to preserve it, but the provision never made it into the final fiscal 2011 spending bill.
Tyler Rogaway was even more blunt for Foxtrot Alpha, in a piece headlined “Axing The F-35′s Alternative Engine Was An Incredibly Stupid Move.”
Compounding the F-35′s woes is that the top defense appropriator in the Senate, Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., is deeply skeptical of the aircraft. On Wednesday he told CQ Roll Call’s Megan Scully (for CQ.com subscribers) that he hadn’t made a decision yet on how to handle the F-35 when his subcommittee takes up the fiscal 2015 spending bill next week.
Writing in a Roll Call Opinion piece, William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, advocated that Durbin’s subcommittee cut funding for the program.
Some other senators said they weren’t terribly worried. And perhaps a visit from Hagel to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, site of the engine fire, will give the aircraft a boost at a low point in its arc.
““The secretary’s visit, particularly at this time, sends a strong message to our international partners that the United States remains fully committed to the F-35 program,” Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said.