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Rep. Adam Smith is challenging national security orthodoxy: He says Congress should no longer lavish funds on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The chair of the House Armed Services Committee has had enough of the most expensive program in the Pentagon’s history and wants to stop throwing money down “that particular rathole,” as he called it. The stealthy fighter aircraft has yet to reach its full capabilities, its engine breaks down more quickly and takes more time to fix than anticipated. The cost to sustain the F-35 fleets is “crazy high,” Smith said in an interview.
“It is an incredibly capable aircraft,” Smith said. “It is also an incredibly expensive aircraft and one of questionable reliability. Most of our national defense plan was built around the idea that we would have a more capable aircraft than we have right now, and that it would cost less.” As a result, Smith said, “we are going to be very reluctant to buy more.”
The Washington Democrat telegraphed what is likely to be one of the toughest money fights in Congress this year. Over the last decade, lawmakers have consistently spent more money on the aircraft than the Pentagon asked for, enticed by its next-generation technology and the promise of well-paying defense jobs in their districts to support its construction. Lockheed won the contract almost 20 years ago.
Smith is looking into alternatives—potentially a mix of aircraft and other technologies such as drones—as well as the possibility of buying an alternative engine, he said. The Pentagon canceled a secondary engine program for the F-35 10 years ago. In addition, Smith said, he’s looking at incentives for the F-35 contract “to get us better results.”
Smith’s approach likely will face opposition from a large contingent of F-35 supporters representing congressional districts across the country. Last month, more than 130 lawmakers, led by Reps. John Larson (D-Conn.), Marc Veasey (D-Texas), Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Chris Stewart (R-Utah), the co-chairs of the Joint Strike Fighter Caucus, wrote to the congressional defense committee leaders requesting continued support for F-35 production.
The F-35 is made in the district of the House Appropriations Committee’s top Republican, Kay Granger of Texas, and has the backing of her state’s two senators. The engine is made in Connecticut.
Even so, Smith has backup from senior Democrats on his panel, adding heft to the fight over a congressional darling.
“The hammer is coming down, folks,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), the chair of the panel’s Readiness subcommittee, said in an interview. His subcommittee oversees all the logistics associated with flying and maintaining the F-35.
“Is it going to be a big fight? If that is what it takes, it’ll be a big fight,” Garamendi said. “Lockheed and their suppliers are not happy, but their unhappiness is less than my unhappiness, so we’re going to have a fight. This cannot continue.”
The program is a top driver of Lockheed sales, but the company said it is “fully invested” in reducing the jet’s acquisition and life-cycle costs.
Keeping the jets’ upgrades on track and adequately funded are more important to the Biden administration than increasing the number of current model aircraft that will need to eventually be upgraded, Stacy Cummings, the acting undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee last month in written testimony. The Biden administration is planning to request funding for 85 F-35s in fiscal 2022.
Proponents of the F-35, such as Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, say the fifth-generation fighter is necessary to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region and the program should not be curtailed as Lockheed’s F-22 fighter plane was.
Over the last five years, Congress added more than 90 F-35 planes that the Pentagon didn’t request, even as the program faced delays, cost increases, and software glitches. Lawmakers now are focusing on the future challenges of the multi-service, multinational stealth fighter aircraft: the prohibitive cost of flying the planes, and the cost of maintaining and sustaining them—especially at the peak of their operational life.
The F-35’s total “life cycle” cost is estimated at $1.73 trillion, according to the Pentagon’s budget blueprints. Life cycle costs include acquisition, maintenance, and operations over decades. Of that, $1.27 trillion—over 66 years—is for operations and support of the advanced plane that’s a flying supercomputer.
It costs about $38,000 an hour to fly the F-35, above the $25,000 envisioned—a cost hike that has caught Smith’s eye. The armed services chair indicated that he would look into creating competition for maintaining the jets, potentially taking it out of Lockheed’s hands. The cost to buy one F-35 is about $80 million.
“I know how important the F-35 is,” Smith said at an American Enterprise Institute last month. But at $38,000 an hour to fly, with less than half of planes available to fly, and an engine that is expected to be difficult to fix after 2030, “I think we can do better,” he said. The engine is made by Pratt & Whitney, now a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corp.
Funds for Maintenance
Garamendi said Congress must first stop adding planes above the president’s budget request. Lawmakers spent money on adding the 97 planes over the last seven years, leaving less money for sustaining the program, he said. “The maintenance of the planes was ignored in favor of acquisition of new, bright shiny planes.”
To catch up, congressional appropriations should be shifted to getting the depots, machinery, and tools ready for maintenance, Garamendi said.
In its 2020 annual report, Lockheed cites the F-35 as the company’s largest program, responsible for almost one-third of sales totaling $18.3 billion. F-35 also represents 69% of the sales of the Lockheed Aeronautics division.
The company is “fully invested” in reducing the acquisition and life-cycle costs for the F-35, and “maintaining the ever-changing and perishable technological ‘step ahead’ of peer threats,” Greg Ulmer, Lockheed’s executive vice president of aeronautics, told House Armed Services Committee members last month. When asked for additional comment, company officials pointed to Ulmer’s congressional testimony.
The armed services panels have known for a decade the F-35 has problems—and thought more planes and more money would fix those problems, Garamendi said.
“We are just not putting up with it anymore,” he said. “That’s it, it’s over, I am sorry.”
With assistance from Tony Capaccio/Bloomberg News
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org