F-35 Program Delayed Again, Costing At Least $500 Million

An F-35 performs in Chicago / AP
January 11, 2017

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program has been delayed again and will cost at least $500 million more, according to correspondence between the Pentagon and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) revealed Tuesday afternoon that the Defense Department had confirmed the seven-month delay in the F-35's system development and demonstration phase, or SDD. McCain has long been a harsh critic of the F-35 program for its delays and accompanying cost overruns, and President-elect Donald Trump has more recently took aim at Lockheed Martin's development of the fifth-generation stealth fighter jets for its "out of control" costs.

"I have been recently informed the F-35's system development and demonstration phase has been delayed another seven months, another costly stumble that will cost the American taxpayer at least $500 million," McCain said in a statement. "This is yet another troubling sign for a program that has already nearly doubled in cost, taken nearly two decades to field, and has long been the poster child for acquisition malpractice."

The F-35 program's budget has nearly doubled to $400 billion since Lockheed Martin first unveiled it 15 years ago, making it the Pentagon's most costly acquisitions program.

In a letter to McCain sent Dec. 19, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, revealed that the development phase to deliver the fighter jet's Block 3F software would be delayed by seven months. Completing the phase will cost at least $500 million more than previously budgeted, Kendall said, though he added that the increased costs "can be covered from funds within the program." The additional money will be needed in the next fiscal year.

"I have concluded that we should plan for a seven month extension from the previous SDD baseline estimate for the delivery of the Block 3F capability with a completion goal of May 2018, and provide set-aside funds to account for increased SDD cost," Kendall wrote. "The F-35 SDD program cost and schedule were re-baselined in 2011 following a thorough technical baseline review of the remaining work to complete the development effort."

"Completing SDD will require at least $500 million more than previously budgeted. These funds will be required beginning in FY 2018. A more accurate projection will become available over the next few months as additional testing occurs," Kendall wrote. "There are program funds to cover over 80 percent of the shortfall we currently anticipate and the balance can be made up by diverting a fraction of the planned [Follow-On Modernization] funding to completing SDD. The final FY 2018 budget request will identify any changes to the funding required to complete SDD."

Kendall said that Pentagon leaders "do not anticipate" funding for other service priorities to be cut in fiscal year 2018 as a result of the delays in the F-35 program because most of the costs will be covered by other F-35 program funds.

McCain accused the Pentagon of "downplaying" the cost of the latest delay in the program and worried that further modernization of the aircraft will be plagued by more delays and cost overruns in the future.

"Given the challenges this program continues to face, it's likely that the true cost could be more than twice the $500 million projection–draining the department of critical funding it needs to train, prepare, and equip our military," McCain said Tuesday.

"The F-35's dismal record on cost, schedule, and performance is a predicable consequence of a broken defense acquisition system," the lawmaker said. "That's why the Senate Armed Services Committee will continue to make it a priority to streamline our acquisition system while exercising rigorous oversight of the F-35 program so that we can finally deliver our warfighters the capabilities they need."

Trump put heat on Lockheed Martin in December when he tweeted about the cost-overruns of the major defense contractor's development of the F-35 Lightning II for the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy. Later, the CEO of Lockheed Martin promised Trump that she would reduce the costs of the program after meeting with the president-elect.

On Tuesday, McCain demanded that the contractor "reveal its plans" to drive down costs to members of Congress.