Lockheed Martin F-35 production could be frozen at around 32 aircraft for four years, if a US Senate committee's version of the fiscal year 2012 defence budget is signed into law.
The Senate's defence panel, on the appropriations committee, recommended a $695 million reduction in the F-35 programme, and freezing new production orders at 32 aircraft through FY2013.
Lockheed has already been held to 32 aircraft orders in FY2010 and FY2011. These included one aircraft ordered by the UK and one by the Netherlands, respectively. The US Department of Defense originally requested to buy 43 aircraft in the FY2011 budget, but Congress reduced the award to 32. The Senate panel is seeking to extend that production plateau for two more years.
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The proposed cut would "limit our out-year cost growth for each aircraft we build early in the test program," said Senator Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the defence subcommittee on appropriations.
Inouye warned that the F-35 programme is spending too much money on procurement, even as several years remain in the development phase.
"We'll have to pay many millions in the future to fix problems identified in testing," Inouye added.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, did not object to the production freeze, but warned further extensions would increase costs.
"I hope we watch carefully that we don't increase the costs by ordering too few [F-35s] at a time," she said. "The department does intend to ramp up in 2014. If everything stays on course this will be fine, but I do hope we'll continue to monitor carefully."
The Senate panel's proposal now moves to the full committee for a vote, and then to the entire chamber, before it can be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The FY2012 budget could quickly be overshadowed by possible budget reductions that may be imposed starting next October.
Separately, Lockheed's factory in Marietta, Georgia, has delivered the first centre wing box structure to the F-35 final assembly line in Fort Worth, Texas.
The wing box assembly work was transferred to Georgia after the DoD terminated the contract for the Lockheed F-22A Raptor, which is also produced at the Marietta facility.