The Pentagon has no immediate plans to stall production of the F-35 fighter under development at Lockheed Martin’s west-side Fort Worth plant, a top Pentagon official said Friday.
Speculation of a scaling back erupted on Friday as a result of a report in The Wall Street Journal that stated that the Pentagon was weighing a delay to the F-35 Lightning II. The article stated the Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was considering the delay as one option presented by a task force to cut Pentagon spending over the second half of this decade.
While a task force report may raise a recommendation to delay production, “it sounds like 180 degrees from reality,’’ said one Pentagon official who did not want to be identified.
That task force report’s recommendation also is an about-face to numerous comments made by top Pentagon officials at a June 13 press conference at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth aeronautics headquarters, and additional comments less than 10 days ago in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense in Washington D.C.
At the June 19 Senate hearing, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told congressional leaders that the Pentagon has been making steady progress since 2010 to control costs and complete development of the F-35 Lightning II.
“We have a lot of work remaining, and we should not be surprised if bad news does occur,” Kendall said June 19. “We are still a long way to go in the test program.”
But he echoed to the committee similar comments made in Fort Worth two weeks prior, stating that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the Pentagon would be able to increase production.
In Fort Worth, Kendall said the hope was to raise production to 30 aircraft a year in the fall, and eventually increase the rate several times more.
“Ultimately, it will mean we will get production rates to a much higher level, which will mean obviously more work here in Fort Worth,” Kendall had said.
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, who has been vocal about the program’s prior missteps, also told congressional leaders at the June 19 hearing that the program’s standing has improved.
“The F-35 program is not the same program it was a number of years ago,’’ said Bogdan, who is the F-35 program’s executive officer.
“We have significantly restructured the program over the past few years and created a much more realistic baseline to the program,’’ he said at the hearing. “We've also adequately resourced the program to meet our commitments in terms of manpower, tactical expertise, time and money.”
Kendall and several other Defense Department officials had visited Fort Worth to attend an annual F-35 round-table discussion between the aerospace giant and its major customers.
The F-35 program has been mired in controversy almost from its inception more than a decade ago. Costs have exceeded projections by as much as 70 percent, and a series of technical problems caused production delays.
As a result, the estimated $400 billion defense program has drawn criticism from watchdog groups, the Government Accountability Office and leaders at the Pentagon. And some foreign nations have threatened to consider other jets because of the rising cost.
The production rate is planned to increase to 42 planes in fiscal 2015, 62 in 2016, 76 in 2017 and 100 in 2018, according to an internal Pentagon budget document obtained by Bloomberg News.
About 11/2 years ago, the Pentagon had to postpone a decision to ramp up production, Kendall said at the June 13 press conference.
“We were not ready to do that,” he said. “The design was not stable enough on the program to increase production.”
But the development program is executing close to the plan, he said. “We’re making good progress on” design issues, he said.
Lockheed Martin has more than 14,000 employees at its west-side factory. More than 9,300 are working on the F-35 program.