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F-35 fighter flies into trouble in Congress
By Jim Wolf1 hour, 40 minutes ago
A key congressional panel has recommended slowing Lockheed Martin Corp.'s $276.5 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the costliest U.S. weapons acquisition plan, and restoring an engine plan the Pentagon wants to kill.
Lockheed, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier, would have to delay production beyond 2007 of the first F-35's under the plan announced Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Senate panel also recommended cutting $1.2 billion from the Bush administration's $4 billion-plus request for the program in fiscal 2007 to force more pre-production testing.
The House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, for its part, voted this week to fund fully Bush's approach to buying the first five but would provide only enough to buy five more in 2008, down from 16 sought by the Pentagon.
Both panels restored roughly $400 million for development of the alternate engine by a team made up of General Electric Co. and Britain's Rolls-Royce Plc. The engine would compete with one being built by United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney unit.
The House panel said the Pentagon "did not consider the benefit of competition" for future operations and maintenance costs when it sought to kill the second engine to save money.
The United States is developing three variants of the supersonic, radar-evading F-35 with eight overseas partners in a program costing $276.5 billion through 2027. Less than 1 percent of flight testing has been completed.
The F-35 changes were contained in the House and Senate committees' versions of the Defense Authorization bill.
The House panel's bill, which authorizes $512.9 billion overall plus $50 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, may be considered by the full House next week; the Senate panel's by the full Senate by the end of the month.
Once each version is approved, negotiators from both houses meet to iron out differences and prepare a final version.
The push to delay F-35 production was led by Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record) of Arizona, a one-time and possibly repeat candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
McCain, who is in line to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Service panel next year, has shaken up several big-ticket arms programs in recent years, including an abortive $23.5 billion plan to acquire 100 aerial-refueling tankers from Boeing Co..
John Smith, a spokesman for Lockheed, said any slowdown of production would delay the delivery of next-generation fighter capabilities to U.S. forces "and make the program more expensive overall."
GE said restoring funding for the alternate engine proposal would keep it alive for another year, setting the stage for further debate. "Our job is to make sure that everybody understands what's at stake here," spokesman Richard Kennedy said. "If GE doesn't prevail, we will be out of the fighter engine business."
The F-35 is designed to replace a wide range of warplanes, including U.S. Air Force A-10s and F-16s, Navy F/A-18s, Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers and F/A18s plus British Harriers.
(quoted in full because of temporary news link)