Mixed messages on possible F-35 funding cut?

When the House Appropriations Committee’s defense panel passed their version of the Fiscal 2011 spending bill on Tuesday, the legislators buried a whopper of a mystery funding cut.

The aircraft procurement account for the US Air Force would be slashed by $2.263 billion next year if the subcommittee’s version of the bill becomes law. By contrast, the navy’s aircraft account is reduced by only $242 million and army aircraft spending would decline by $115 million.

A spokesman for the panel declines to identify the source of the cut until after the full committee votes on the bill, which is not scheduled until September.

So what could it be?

My colleague Gayle Putrich talked to Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia yesterday and he has a theory, which I think is very plausible. Aboulafia guesses such a huge cut could be the appropriators sending Lockheed Martin a message about the F-35.

Two months ago, the House Armed Services Committee passed a spending authorization bill that proposes to “ring-fence” funding for 12 F-35s. The funding would be released only if Lockheed achieves certain goals in the flight test program, such as completing 394 test flights and more than 3,900 test points by the end of the calendar year.

It’s possible the appropriators acted on their colleagues threat. According to the USAF’s budget justification materials, it costs about $2.05 billion for 12 F-35As in FY2011 budget, excluding long-lead production costs. Subtract $2.05 billion from the $2.263 billion figure, and you get a reasonable appropriations mark of about $121 million.

If Aboulafia’s guess is correct, then it’s even more clear that Congress is serious about holding Lockheed accountable for any more delays in the flight test program.

On the other land, it also could expose a potential loophole. Lawmakers may require Lockheed to complete 394 flight tests overall, but there’s no objective goal for each of the three F-35 variants.

This appears to give Lockheed some room to maneuver as the flight test schedule for the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing (STOVL) has started falling behind. The four STOVL test aircraft have completed 21 fewer flight tests than planned this year.

However, Lockheed can still reach the overall objective of 394 flights by increasing the pace of sorties for the other two variants, which have so far proven more reliable. On Tuesday, Lockheed reported the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant has completed 56 flights this year, or 32 more than scheduled, and the carrier variant has completed six flights compared to only one on the schedule.

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4 Responses to Mixed messages on possible F-35 funding cut?

  1. John S. 29 July, 2010 at 12:24 pm #

    Subtract $2.05 billion from the $2.263 billion figure, and you get a reasonable appropriations mark of about $121 million.

    Typo? I get $213 million.

    And how does this appropriations reduction, speculated to be for the F-35, square with the F136 funding that this same House committee put into the budget over the Pentagon’s and White House’s objections?

    One hand giveth…

  2. anno 29 July, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    Hmm, of course it’s good to keep LockMart’s to its schedule, but I’m not sure about the implications for the program. Wouldn’t this number-staring lead to flights being performed mostly to reach the target amount? They’d actually waste money in doing so, while the plane may be less thoroughly tested in the end because fewer of the flights were useful.

    I don’t know that much of the F-35 story, but it sounds like a compromise has to be made somewhere…

  3. John 29 July, 2010 at 4:38 pm #

    I agree this may be a message being sent to Lockheed etal. However go read this document “Debt, Deficits and Defense” authored by the “sustainable defense task force” who are:

    The Sust ainable Defense Task Force
    Carl Conetta, Project on Defense Alternatives
    Benjamin H Friedman, Cato Institute
    William D Hartung, New America Foundation
    Christopher Hellman, National Priorities Project
    Heather Hurlburt, National Security Network
    Charles Knight, Project on Defense Alternatives
    Lawrence J Korb, Center for American Progress
    Paul Kawika Martin, Peace Action
    Laicie Olson, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
    Miriam Pemberton, Institute for Policy Studies
    Laura Peterson, Taxpayers for Common Sense
    Prasannan Parthasarathi, Boston College
    Christopher Preble, Cato Institute
    Winslow Wheeler, Center for Defense Information

    I get a whole different take on the apparent cuts. To me this is an indication of some of our so called “leaders” intentions. Not good for our country’s future.

  4. Dave 29 July, 2010 at 5:23 pm #

    Perhaps with this version of the bill they’re not being serious? What I’m getting at is that given that the President is likely to veto the bill as it stands because of the F-136 funding, it could be that they are sending a message to Lockheed Martin. Of course, if this stays it, I’m sure the administration will veto it anyways. In my experience, Richard is seldom wrong…

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