Senior Officials Bolster Outlook For F-35

Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News reported on July 15 that the Pentagon’s top acquisition official hopes to insulate the tri-service F-35 fighter program from the effects of budget sequestration. Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall was quoted in the Bloomberg story saying that “the F-35 is a very high priority,” and that he expected no weakening of support for the program “under any of the budgets we are looking at, including sequestration.” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told Congress in a letter last week that the sequestration provisions of the 2011 Budget Control Act might impose cuts of 15-20% on Pentagon technology accounts, but apparently that does not apply to the highest-priority programs.

Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee has released its report on the defense department’s fiscal 2014 authorization request, and therein Senator John McCain offers unusually positive observations about F-35. McCain is the upper chamber’s foremost critic of defense industry performance, but of late he has been expressing guarded optimism about the progress that the F-35 Joint Program Office is making in containing costs and overcoming technical challenges. Citing a decrease in the plane’s projected cost recently reported by the Pentagon, McCain says in the authorization report, “I am pleased to see signs that the Department may be finally containing excessive cost growth in this top defense procurement priority.”

There was a time when news about the F-35 was so persistently negative that the phrase “troubled F-35 program” seemed like its official name. Those days appear to be over, though, as everybody from the Government Accountability Office to the Joint Program Office weighs in with positive assessments of program trends. F-35 isn’t out of the woods yet — software needs to be completed, helmet issues need to be resolved, and production needs to ramp up to a point where economies of scale become feasible. But the Pentagon’s biggest next-generation weapons program increasingly looks like a winner, and that is very good news for the Lockheed Martin – Northrop Grumman – BAE Systems – Pratt & Whitney team building what Senator McCain has said is potentially “the greatest combat aircraft in the history of the world.”