(Updates with congressional spending on F-35 program in paragraphs 7-8.)
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Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program—the costliest U.S. weapons system—will be in the crosshairs this year as Congress works on the fiscal 2022 defense budget, the leader of the House Armed Services Committee said.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said Friday that he’s looking for the most “cost-effective” mix of fighter aircraft.
“I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” Smith said of the F-35 program, speaking at at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution. “A big part of that is finding something that doesn’t make us rely on the F-35 for the next 35 years.”
The Air Force has started buying the Boeing Co. F-15EX and is looking into another next-generation fighter aircraft as well, Smith said. “The thing with the F-35 is, don’t put your eggs in one basket,” he added.
High costs to operate and maintain the aircraft throughout its life, as well as software flaws, have bedeviled the $398 billion F-35 program. Each of the fighter jets made by Bethesda, Md.,-based Lockheed will have more than 8 million lines of code, more than any previous U.S. or allied fighter.
“What does the F-35 give us and is there a way to cut our losses? Is there a way to not keep spending that much money for such a low capability? Because as you know, the sustainment costs are brutal,” Smith said.
But Lockheed Martin and the F-35 program enjoy almost unbreakable support in Congress, and it’s yet unclear if Smith’s concerns and criticism will make a difference. Congress regularly increases funding for the program, which has constituencies spread across the United States.
This year alone, Congress approved $9.8 billion for 96 F-35s—17 more than the Pentagon requested. Meanwhile the House and Senate Armed Services committees agreed to authorize 93 of the fighter aircraft, 14 more than requested.
Smith criticized the “obsessive focus” of having the stealthy F-35 to counter China when the U.S. is also engaged in other parts of the world.
“Just because a weapons system would not be effective against China doesn’t mean that it’s not an important part of what we’re doing,” Smith said. “We are still dealing with transnational terrorist threats, trying to stop ISIS and Al Qaeda, and keep our networks under control.”
The F-35 program is an example of how the U.S. has wasted “a spectacular amount of money” on weapons systems that haven’t worked “at all” or that have “not lived up to their promise,” he said. The Pentagon’s acquisition process over the last 20 years “can only be described as a complete disaster for what is going on with the F-35,” he said, also citing the Littoral Combat Ship, the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and the former Future Combat System.
The Pentagon rewards people for process, not for results, Smith said. “The failure we wind up tolerating is failure on a massive frickin’ scale, think F-35,” he said.
The Defense Department repeatedly delayed combat testing in a highly sophisticated simulator to evaluate how the F-35—and future aircraft and electronic warfare systems—would perform against the most advanced Russian and Chinese aircraft and air defenses.
The simulation exercise is required to certify the plane is combat-ready against the toughest Russian or Chinese threats, and thus ready for a decision on full-rate production. It will probably be months into President Joe Biden’s administration before his Pentagon team has all the information needed to decide on full-rate production, the most lucrative phase for Lockheed.
Smith also drew a battle line over the insistence from Republicans, led by House Armed Services ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), that the defense budget grow by 3% to 5%. National security is authorized at $740.5 billion this year.
“For too long, if you want to know whether or not you’re tough on defense, we’ve measured by one thing, how much money you’re spending,” Smith said. “So can we all just sort of get off this epic fight over whether or not it’s 3% or 5% or 1%, and let’s just spend the goddamn money effectively.”
Work on the Defense Department’s fiscal 2022 funding will begin in earnest after the president submits his budget request, likely in May.
With assistance from Tony Capaccio (Bloomberg News)
To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org