Congress threatens to slash F-35 procurement

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The US Congress has opened debate on the fiscal year 2011 defence budget by sending a clear and unprecedented warning to the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme.

For the first time, a major legislative committee approved a bill that would slash F-35 funding if the programme fails to achieve a reduced set of cost and schedule goals this year.

HR 5136, a bill to authorise defence spending, threatens to reduce the F-35's development budget by 25% and slash overall FY2011 procurement from 43 to 31 aircraft, if Lockheed fails to achieve certain goals, such as completing 394 test flights in FY2010. Production in FY2011 has already been trimmed from 48 to 43 aircraft.

Lockheed had completed 60 flight tests as of 1 May, two more than scheduled. Over the next five months, Lockheed must average nearly 42 flights a month as the test fleet expands from seven to 13 aircraft by the end of the year.

lockheed martin f-35 jsf bf-1, lockheed martin
 © Lockheed Martin

"They have to meet the milestones in terms of testing and delivering aircraft to make sure that they stay on that timeline," says Adam Smith, chairman of the House AirLand subcommittee.

The language, however, must survive several more steps in the legislative process before it becomes law. Following its passage by the House Armed Services Committee this month, the authorisation bill now goes before the full House of Representatives. Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee will start work on its version of the FY2011 defence authorisation bill in the week beginning the 23 May. Appropriations committees in both house of Congress also have yet to debate the F-35 issue.

But the new clause changes the tone of the F-35 debate in Congress.

Since contract award in October 2001, the F-35 programme has faced repeated setbacks, including a costly redesign in 2004 and a major restructuring in February.

Until this year, however, Congress has consistently supported the programme's budget requests, allocating nearly $57 billion for F-35 development and production through FY2010. The FY2011 budget request, if approved, would raise F-35 spending to almost $68 billion, or more than has been spent on development and procurement for all 188 F-22s.

At the same time, Lockheed officials have spoken confidently about their ability to meet reduced schedule targets. The Department of Defense, for instance, earlier this year reduced the number of scheduled flight tests in FY2010 from 1,243 to 394.