ABC News' Luis Martinez reports:
The Pentagon announced today that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has experienced significant cost overruns that have almost doubled the estimated cost per aircraft beyond original projections made by Lockheed Martin back in 2001. The Pentagon will now conduct a congressionally-mandated review of the program’s future, but despite Pentagon and congressional concern about the cost overruns, it’s highly likely the program will continue forward.
The fighter is the Pentagon’s biggest weapons program, it plans on buying 2,443 of the aircraft that will become the common fighter aircraft for the Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. Eight US allies have also committed to buying 730 of the aircraft.
The Pentagon says Lockheed Martin originally projected, back in 2001, that each aircraft would cost $50.2 million. DOD officials told Congress today that it now believes each plane could cost almost double that, between $80 and $95 million dollars each in 2002 dollars. That’s a 60 to 90 percent increase. Adjust those numbers for inflation and the actual cost for each plane rises to between $95 and $113 million. Top scale, that would make it a 125 percent increase over the original cost estimate.
The GAO estimates the current overall cost of the program is now $323 billion, 40 percent higher than the original 2001 estimate of $231 billion. Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s top purchasing officer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that when all is said and done – and adjusting for inflation –the overall cost of the program will be more than 50 percent higher than when the program began in 2001.
Final cost numbers will come out in June after the Pentagon conducts the review, required by the Nunn-McCurdy law, that’s triggered when cost estimates for a weapons program rise 25 percent higher than original projections. The Pentagon review must certify that the program it is essential for national security or face cancellation whenever the cost overruns go beyond that amount.
The costly VH-71 Presidential Helicopter also resulted in a Nunn-McCurdy review early last year before Secretary Gates ultimately killed the program.
Despite the cost overruns, the Joint Strike Fighter’s future still looks good. It’s expected that the plane will be considered essential for national security and because there isn’t an alternative, which means production will likely continue whatever the cost. Another reason, Secretary Gates doesn’t want more F-22’s for the Air Force and he’s determined that the plane the Air Force needs for the future is the next generation F-35 fighter.
Members of the committee support the program, but expressed concern about how much longer the cost overruns can continue. Committee Chairman Carl Levin said, “ people should not conclude that we will be willing to continue that strong support without regard to increased costs coming from poor program management or lack of focus on affordability.” Ranking member Sen. John McCain said, “the taxpayers are a little tired of this. I can’t say that I can blame them.”
Production of the plane has yet to begin in earnest as only several test aircraft have been built in recent years. The Pentagon plans to buy 43 aircraft this year. The program’s delays have become increasingly apparent in recent months. Just last month Gates withheld $600 million in payments due to Lockheed Martin because of the cost overruns and fired the two-star general who managed the program.
There’s already another disconnect between Congress and the Pentagon over the fighter. Influential congressmen support the idea of installing a second engine onto the aircraft for safety purposes should the sole engine malfunction. Secretary Gates has said there is no need for an alternate engine as,
“ whatever benefits might accrue are more than offset by excess cost, complexity and associated risks.”