McCain says F-35’s cost may force Pentagon to cut back purchases

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon must reevaluate whether it can afford to buy its entire planned fleet of F-35 jets, the costliest U.S. weapons system, Sen. John McCain said.

Under the original plan crafted after Lockheed Martin beat Boeing in 2001 in a competition to build the fighter, 1,013 of the program’s 2,443 jets were supposed to be delivered by next Sept. 30. So far, 179 have actually been delivered, McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a session with reporters Wednesday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

“That leaves well over 2,000 to complete the program” so “we would have to purchase 100 F-35s per year for more than 20 years at a cost of $10 billion to $12 billion a year,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican. “That seems unlikely, and all that assumes the F-35 will provide the necessary capability.”

The F-35 has drawn particular scrutiny because of its cost, with any increase or decrease signaling a shift of billions of dollars. It’s currently estimated to cost $391.1 billion to develop and purchase the aircraft. Estimates have climbed as much as 71 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars since the Pentagon signed the initial contract because of technical problems and issues such as the aircraft’s unplanned increase in weight.

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“I’m not making a judgment but it seems to me that if we had planned on originally procuring a thousand of them” by the end of this fiscal year “and instead we have procured 179, there may be some mismatch there,” McCain said.

Earlier this year, McCain had said that “after suffering years of unacceptable cost growth and schedule delays, the program appears to have started to stabilize.” The first combat unit of F-35s, a Marine Corps squadron, is based at Yuma in his state.

The Pentagon’s current plan calls for requesting 66 jets in fiscal 2017, up from 57 last year; the annual quantity would increase to 92 by 2020. The Pentagon’s F-35 program manager, Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, said at a September conference that production, including jets for foreign customers, will eventually hit 120 a year.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t have 2,443. I just want to know how you get there,” McCain said, adding that the Senate report accompanying the annual defense authorization measure requires an evaluation within six months of how many F-35s can be purchased. “If it’s not a realistic estimate shouldn’t we have a realistic estimate?”

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McCain said that a potential decision by the new Canadian government to cancel its planned purchase of 65 Air Force model F-35s, if realized, “of course, ratchets up the unit cost.”