Congress inches toward reining in struggling F-35 program

Congress inches toward reining in struggling F-35 program

Congress is moving closer to taking action to rein in the long-troubled F-35 program, which has failed to meet its promises and is facing new problems with the latest generation.

Two top Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) say they are having conversations about an amendment to the annual defense bill that would reduce the number of aircraft purchased by the Air Force for the next fiscal year.

While the amendment was recently blocked by GOP lawmakers, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member on the HASC, said that was just an initial setback and there is pressure growing on Capitol Hill to finally address the F-35 program.

“Every single member with a piece of [the F-35] is starting to feel the heat for a program that is not only way over budget, way over schedule, but still hasn’t produced the plane that we want,” he said. “The pressure is building.”

His amendment aims to tackle the latest problems with the F-35 program, specifically Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3), a hardware and software update for the fighter jet’s computer system intended for the newest models under a $16.5 billion modernization effort called Block 4.

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin has struggled to apply the new update, leading to an undisclosed number of F-35s sitting on the tarmac. The Defense Department in July 2023 canceled new orders of the F-35 while Lockheed works on the issues.

Smith’s amendment, also backed by Rep. Jen Kiggans, (R-Va.), is included in the House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) but not in the defense appropriations bill that funds the NDAA priorities.

The provision, blocked by the House Rules Committee, would drop the number of aircraft purchased in fiscal 2025 to 58, which is down from the 68 requested by the Biden administration. The defense appropriations bill increases the number to 76.

By reducing the number of aircraft, some $850 million could be redirected to Lockheed to fix the software update issues, in effect incentivizing the contractor to invest in the upgrades.

Smith, who says he has talked to Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) about the amendment, said his provision is a commonsense way to “make the contractors spend the money” to deliver the planes they have promised the Pentagon.

But Smith added that the F-35 program speaks to a larger problem that Congress needs to address: keeping down costs for increasingly sophisticated technology for weapons systems.

“Books will be written about the F-35 program in terms of the challenges and problems around it,” he said. “And it’s very important that we in Congress understand that, try to figure out how to do better going forward.”

Dan Grazier, senior fellow for the National Security Reform Program at the Stimson Center who has followed the F-35 controversy, said “attitudes have shifted dramatically on Capitol Hill” recently.

“For years there were very few people who were willing to say anything even remotely negative about the F-35,” he said. “Now it’s actually kind of hard to find people who come out and give really full-throated support for the program.”

Besides the Smith amendment, Congress is openly debating other ways to fix the F-35 program.

At the HASC markup of the NDAA in May, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed grievances with the F-35 program and debated whether to take the drastic step of seizing the intellectual property of the fighter jet from Lockheed.

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said at the markup the F-35 was “broken” and that it was a “fundamental issue” that Lockheed has control over the program through the original contract.

Taking the intellectual property of the F-35 would address the software issues with TR-3, he argued.

“It’s a shame because we have a lot of extraordinary software developers in America, but we can’t allow them to work on this program because Lockheed refuses to give up the intellectual property,” he said.

The amendment was withdrawn over Congressional Budget Office concerns on how to pay for it. Lawmakers also raised questions about the legality of seizing intellectual property. But during the conversations, even Republicans aired mounting concerns about the program.

“The F-35 has kind of walked itself into a position where, I don’t want to say a dead end, but it’s in a position that we need competition, we need this software, we need to have the ability to put those assets overhead, and right now that’s just not happening,” said Rep. Morgan Luttrell (R-Texas).

“I hope Lockheed is listening because we are seriously paying attention to this,” he added.

In response to a detailed inquiry on whether it supports congressional efforts to address the problem, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson said the company looks “forward to continuing to work with the Administration and Congress as the fiscal year 2025 budget process progresses.”

The movement in Congress is startling, considering the program has long avoided anything more than grumblings in Congress, despite having a history of failure.

The troubles have always contrasted with the promises made. In its earliest phase, in 2001, there was glowing coverage of the next-generation fighter jet that the U.S. military vowed would conduct a wide variety of warfighting missions.

But the advanced fighter jet, which replaced the fourth-generation F-16, just reached full-rate production this year, meaning it is finally at the highest rate of readiness after more than 23 years. It was expected to reach full production by 2019.

The F-35 program also soared from its initial cost estimates, triggering in 2010 a Nunn-McCurdy breach, which forced the Pentagon to conduct a review of whether to continue the program. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates opted to restructure the program instead of canceling it.

Today, the F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon system. The U.S. operates 630 of the aircraft and plans to purchase 2,500 by the mid-2040s and to continue operating them through the 2080s.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report this year that the total costs to sustain the F-35 fleet through 2088 would be more than $2 trillion. An individual aircraft will cost more than $6 million annually to operate and sustain.

At the same time, the Navy, Marines and Air Force have each projected a decrease in flying the F-35, which has not had a single model meet mission goals from fiscal 2019 through 2023. Lockheed also continues to deliver the aircraft late.

The GAO also said in the report that around 70 percent of its recommendations have not been addressed by the Pentagon, including creating a new sustainment strategy or reassessing Lockheed’s responsibility for sustainment.

In 2021, the tides began to turn against the program. Then-acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who served in the last days of the Trump administration, publicly called it a “piece of s—,” while Smith, then chair of the HASC, referred to the F-35 program as a “rathole.”

Ongoing problems with TR-3 to update and modernize the F-35 were at least partially meant to solve Lockheed’s dogged problems with the aircraft but have so far managed to only compound them.

Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, released a scathing joint statement with Smith after the F-35 amendment they both supported to address the software issue was blocked by House appropriators.

Norcross told The Hill that the lawmakers who blocked the amendment were representing a minority view and that leadership in the House is aligned on addressing the issue.

“I believe that coming out of conference we will have a bill that not only addresses some of the deficiencies in [the] planes but invests in areas where we can make it relevant, because it is now sitting down on the tarmac, not doing any good,” he said.

Norcross also sees pressure growing to tackle the F-35 program.

“From our end, there is no question. In fact, many, and I will say bipartisan [lawmakers], wanted to go much further than we did,” he added.

Grazier, from the Stimson Center, said he supports pausing all purchases until the F-35 program is fixed and that he doubts Smith’s “throwing more money” at the problem will fix it.

He acknowledged a pause this late in the program would be unpopular and unlikely in Congress. But he argued that Lockheed has struggled to manage its program because of a design flaw “baked” into the process from the beginning that promised the fighter jet could perform multiple capabilities, including deep strikes, air-to-air combat and attack missions.

“It was a flawed concept from the very beginning, and then that poor decision was then compounded by the notion of packing every single imaginable gadget into the design,” he said.

“You eventually cross a threshold where your maintainer simply cannot keep up with the workload, just because there’s so many potential things that can break,” he added, “and all of those things need to be maintained to keep that aircraft full mission capable. It’s just a matter of mathematics.”

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