Why would the most expensive defense acquisition program in American history not be required to follow the rules? The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the future fighter for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. The program has been repeatedly reorganized due to growing costs and schedule delays. This year the President’s budget requested $9.1 billion for the continued development and acquisition of the F-35.
Unfortunately, neither the budget nor anyone in the Pentagon can answer a simple but vital question about this program: when will the F-35 be ready for our warfighters?
Normally, defense acquisition programs establish an initial operational capability (IOC) date.
This is the date when the program will deliver a usable new widget or tank or plane to our warfighters. To date, the only major defense acquisition program to not have an IOC date established this far into the program is the F-35.
During the House Armed Services Committee consideration of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, I offered an amendment that required the Department of Defense (DoD) to establish the IOC date of the F-35 or risk the loss of 50 percent of the program’s procurement dollars until they did so. After twenty years in development, it is time the DoD and Lockheed Martin gave the American people some firm idea of when they could see a return on their $400 billion investment in the F-35 program.
Sadly, after lobbying by those in opposition [eds. note: Lockheed Martin lobbyists swarmed the HASC when word about the Akin amendment leaked], members of the Armed Services Committee decided my amendment went too far and instead required the DoD to establish an IOC date, but without any consequences if they fail to do so; something they have done on multiple occasions in the past. According to the ranking member, holding this multi-billion dollar program accountable would “send the wrong message to our allies; calling into question our commitment to the program.”
No one, both personally and professionally, has a stronger commitment to our national defense and funding it properly than myself. I have long argued that we should devote a larger percentage of our budget to a robust defense establishment. That said, my commitment to providing our warfighters with every tool necessary to fight and win America’s wars does not blind me to the fact that even the most well intentioned programs can fail to live up to their promise. Am I suggesting that is where we are with the F-35? Not yet. However, I believe this program, the most expensive in U.S. military history, needs to deliver on the promises it has made or we and our allies will have no choice but to find solutions elsewhere.
With respect to our allies, I question whether holding the Pentagon accountable would have generated any more doubt than the program’s significant delays and cost overruns already have. In fact, in April our Dutch allies announced they would purchase fewer F-35s than planned because of the increasing cost of the aircraft. Additionally, this month the Australians, in an effort to address the country’s budget deficit, delayed the purchase of twelve F-35s for two years. The continued delay and cost overruns in this program will no doubt have a detrimental effect on our allies’ ability to remain committed to the F-35.
Recognizing the difficulties inherent in any cutting edge program of this nature, in the past I have counseled patience with the F-35 program. But Congress and the American people, not to mention the warfighter for whom this aircraft was designed, deserve to know when, if ever, this aircraft will provide a return on our investment.
Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri is chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, as well as a senior member of the House Budget Committee. His district is near the Boeing plant where the F-18 is built. EDS. note: Corrected to reflect that F-18 plant is not in Akin’s district. His district abuts Rep. Lacy Clay’s, in whose district the plant sits.