All eyes are on Air Force's expensive weapons program

The future prospects of the service rest largely on the fate of the Joint Strike Fighter.

The most closely watched program in the Defense Department's budget also is probably the most expensive -- the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose cost and schedule problems have made it a cause for concern both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps plan to buy 2,443 of the Lockheed Martin Corp. fighters during the next several years to replace older jets in the services' fleets.

But with the Obama administration's decision in 2009 to end production of the F-22 Raptor fighter jet and focus modernization efforts and funding on the Joint Strike Fighter, the fate of the program could be crucial to the Air Force's future. The Air Force plans to dedicate more than 5 percent of its overall budget -- and more than 15 percent of its modernization budget -- to the F-35 next year. Within the next several years, officials will allocate about $8 billion per year to the program -- more than three times the budget for the service's next largest program.

When the F-35 program began in 2001, officials estimated the cost per plane at $50 million -- making it an affordable fifth-generation fighter compared with the more expensive Raptor. But problems have driven up the per-aircraft cost of the F-35 to $92.4 million, triggering a breach in June of the 1982 Nunn-McCurdy cost-control amendment.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has fired the program manager, replaced him with a three-star general, withheld $614 million in payments from Lockheed Martin and restructured the program -- all in the hope of putting it on the right track. The Air Force and the other services are standing by plans to purchase hundreds of the fighters.

"This weapon system will be the workhorse driving our Air Force and joint team forward," Air Force Chief of Staff Norton A. Schwartz told the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee in May.

But unless officials get F-35 costs under control, they could face difficult budget choices while juggling other hefty bills, including a $40 billion program to replace Eisenhower-era KC-135 tankers.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., says he believes the Defense Department is far more likely to scale back the F-35 program than it is to sacrifice other weapons systems to pay the fighter's rising bills.

Fewer F-35s, however, might require the Air Force to invest in its aging fleet of F-15 and F-16 fighters in order to keep them flying longer than anticipated -- something officials have bristled at as they seek to retire legacy fighters and replace them with more advanced stealth jets.

"This program's costs are very easily contained by simply buying fewer aircraft," Aboulafia says. "That, of course, means all kinds of unpleasant choices in terms of legacy upgrades."

But Defense Department officials are optimistic that they are turning around the F-35 program, making those kinds of decisions unnecessary.

"We have a good, independent assessment of where we are," Gates told the Senate subcommittee in June. "Part of the problem with this program, frankly, over the last several years has been too rosy an estimate from the production program itself about how things were going, and I think we have a much more realistic approach now."

Megan Scully is the defense reporter for CongressDaily.

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