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Pentagon On Joint Strike Fighter: Too Expensive, But There Is No Alternative

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GATES CARTER
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter | AP

By Colin Clark
Editor, AOLDefense

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. must buy the Joint Strike Fighter, but it's not affordable right now.

That was the somewhat confusing message from the Pentagon's top acquisition official, Ashton Carter, when members of the Senate Armed Services began hammering him Thursday about the plane's huge cost overruns over the last three years. The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), also known as the F-35, may cost a total of more than $1 trillion dollars to design, build, buy, fly and repair through 2065, according to Pentagon documents.

Under sharp questioning by Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Senate committee’s top Republican, Carter said the F-35’s costs are "simply unacceptable in this fiscal environment."

The program faces a “watershed moment” after years of cost overruns and schedule delays have piled up in the midst of one of the greatest fiscal crises in United States history, McCain said.

Carter stressed to the Arizona senator that he and his Pentagon colleagues now feel they have much more information -- and much more accurate information -- about the program's likely path. He and other Pentagon officials repeated their mantra that there is no alternative to buying the F-35.

Carter's comments about the program's sky-high costs during the hearing stood in stark contrast to the much more upbeat tone of a joint statement he and other top Pentagon officials prepared for the hearing.

That statement conveys the official position –- adopted by all senior military officials –- that the F-35 is "the centerpiece of the Department of Defense’s future precision attack capability." Most of it details the current status of the program, which is actually ahead of the latest version of its testing schedule. However, as McCain noted, the program overall is 80 percent over its original cost estimate, and roughly 30 percent over the estimate of the last restructuring.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Carter have been at pains recently to say they support the F-35. After years of getting either insufficient or lousy numbers from the program office, they say they now have "credible" cost estimates for production and operation and support. The later two are the dollars spent on fuel, the people who fly and maintain the jets and the equipment needed to repair and improve them.

These sustainment costs typically makes up at least 70 percent of total expense of a major weapon system. The JSF program office, led by Vice Adm. David Venlet, is preparing the first credible stab at estimating those costs -- and they are high.

According to Christine Fox, director of the Pentagon's feared Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, the F-35 is currently estimated to cost less to operate and maintain than the F-22, which is America's most capable stealth fighter. The F-35 will cost about one third more to sustain and operate than the main plane it is replacing, the F-16. It will cost about same as the F-15C, she told the Senate committee.

A document leaked last Thursday, the Dec. 31 Selected Acquisition Report, puts the F-35's costs at $16,425 per flying hour. That's more than $3,000 more per hour than the F-16C/D's $13,466 cost.

Since "affordability" has been the watchword for the F-35 since it was first conceived, these numbers pose a difficult conundrum for senior Pentagon leaders.

Lockheed Martin’s CEO Bob Stevens is keenly aware of the threat they pose to the program, and he has pressed company officials to do everything possible to get the costs back on track. The company’s top man on the F-35, Tom Burbage, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his prepared remarks that the F-35B, that Marine's version of the JSF, will save the military an estimated $1 billion a year when it replaces three other aging aircraft.

That gives some sense of how complex the F-35B is intended to be. It will serve the roles of the F-18, the Harrier jumpjet and the EA-6 currently fulfill -- a conventional fighter, an attack aircraft and an electronic and cyber warfare platform all rolled into one.

Launching next month, AOL Defense will provide news, insight and tools about the strategy, politics and policies that shape the defense sector. Follow Colin on Twitter for views at @colinclarkaol. Follow AOL Defense for news at @aoldefense.