Congress, Pentagon to hold off on multiyear F-35 contract

U.S. Air Force Capt. Roland Neal, 62nd Fighter Squadron fighter pilot student, prepares to taxi onto the runway for his first flight in the F-35A Lightning II Oct. 1. Photo by Brooke Moeder/U.S. Air Force

Nov. 15 (UPI) — The Department of Defense has promised “significant progress” on the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter, after hearing from lawmakers Wednesday that it’s unlikely to receive a multiyear contract to continue the program until problems with the aircraft are resolved.

Lockheed Martin and F-35 engine maker Pratt and Whitney want multiyear production contracts for the aircraft, but the program has been dogged by high operating costs, inadequate repair capacity, parts shortages and replacement parts that don’t last as long as they should.

While Lockheed and its subcontractors have been issued long-term contracts on the aircraft this year — including a $34 billion contract last month for several future production lots of the F-35 — delays and development issues have given Pentagon officials and members of Congress responsible for oversight pause on awarding similar future deals.

“I don’t see a multiyear contract going forward until the fundamental questions that have been asked thus far, and several that have not yet been put on the table have been resolved,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Readiness Committee, said during a joint hearing two House Armed Services subcommittees Wednesday. “Heretofore, the contractors have had the long end of the leather and the government has been on the short end of the leather. That’s going to change.”

“The Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee has and will continue to support the program, but we don’t have unlimited resources which seem continually needed to achieve the elusive term associated with this program, ‘affordability,'” Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., co-chair of the House Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, said in his opening statement before the Wednesday hearing.

Lawmakers also stressed ongoing challenges with the Autonomic Logistics Information System, referred to as ALIS, which was created to deliver parts to aircraft maintainers but was so burdensome to use that some Air Force instructors and students stopped using it earlier this year, as Defense News reported in March.

The Department of Defense this week attributed problems with ALIS to Lockheed’s grip on intellectual property associated with the system, which the Pentagon wants made public.

In a press release issued after the hearing the Pentagon stressed that it is actively working to update ALIS.

“What we are doing is re-architecting ALIS to make sure it meets the needs of the warfighter while making good use of taxpayer dollars, and we are working on a detailed plan right now as to when that capability will be delivered,” Ellen M. Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told lawmakers during the hearing.

Lord said the Pentagon would not consider funding to award F-35 multiyear contracts for at least a year. Improvements to ALIS are costing Lockheed roughly $50 million, and the company will spend an additional $120 million for other improvements, USNI News reported Wednesday.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric T. Fick, the F-35 program executive officer, told the subcommittees he expects “significant improvement” on ALIS by fall 2020.

At the end of October, the Department of Defense awarded Lockheed a contract for 478 F-35 fighter planes at a cost below $80 million each — the largest contract and lowest price for the series. That deal was announced eight days after Lockheed announced a delay in testing that could keep the plane from full production for 13 months.

Acquisition costs during the F-35 program’s life cycle are estimated at more than $406 billion and sustainment costs at more than $1 trillion.

Thus far, Lockheed has delivered 460 F-35 Lightning II Strike Fighters to the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and to partner nations.

At a joint White House news conference Wednesday Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was in Washington D.C. to meet with President Donald Trump, said the two discussed Turkey’s dispute with the U.S. over the F-35 and the Russian S-400 defense system, which Turkey has elected to buy instead of a U.S. manufactured one. Erdogan held open the possibility of buying a Raytheon-made Patriot missile system instead of the S-400.

In the hearing, Fick said the U.S. has found replacements for all but a dozen alternate suppliers for components of the aircraft previously provided by Turkey before Turkey’s removal from the F-35 partnership.


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