WASHINGTON: The unfolding economic crisis threatening the European Union could ripple through the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s crucial international program, the Pentagon’s top military officer said today.

Partner nation participation in the JSF program “will clearly [be] put at risk if all the predictions about an [European] economic collapse would occur,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said today. Four of the eight international JSF partners — the United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands and Denmark — are EU members. Spain is also reportedly looking at joining the JSF international coalition. But those plans could fall by the wayside if the EU cannot keep its members from financially collapsing.

Spain and Italy are rumored to be the next recipients of EU-financed bailout. Over the past several months European Union members have already bailed out the governments of Greece and Ireland. The United Kingdom is already implementing draconian defense spending cuts casting a pall over the fighter program’s biggest international partner. Things took a turn for the worse today when the United Kingdom blocked a new fiscal austerity plan pitched by France and Germany during an emergency EU summit in Brussels today.

Dempsey would not say if these recent developments would force JSF partner nations to leave the program or dramatically cut their planned purchases of the F-35. But he did note the EU economic crisis was cause for concern inside the Pentagon. “They would have to make some decisions . . . on the reallocation of resources that could potentially affect the JSF,” Dempsey said. The UK says they need 150 jets to support their aircraft carrier fleet but may end up buying less than that. Things are getting difficult for the program on the home front as well, the four-star general admitted.

The Pentagon is already facing a $450 billion budget cut over the next decade. That number could grow to roughly $1 trillion with the recent failure of the congressional Super Committee. Those cuts will result in “fact of life” changes to the program. Changes that could force the department to stretch out the JSF’s production schedule, Dempsey said. While the production rate may change, the Pentagon’s dedication to seeing the program through has not. Dempsey said the department is “clearly” committed to purchasing the F-35. However the four-star general openly questioned whether the Pentagon could afford all three versions of the fighter in October. At the time, Dempsey told members of the House Armed Services Committee that buying all three variants would greatly increase pressure on an already stressed budget.

As political and economic pressure on the JSF program increases we will have to see which Dempsey shows up to that debate. Will it be the four-star general who said today he is clearly on board with the program. Or will it be the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who would not even mention the JSF by name to lawmakers in October.