F-35 fighter program gets more bad news in Navy report

Storms and turbulence continue to buffet Lockheed Martin's F-35 joint strike fighter program, as observers in the military, political and investment arenas keep a close watch for progress — or the lack of it.

Close on the heels of reports that the Pentagon plans to cut F-35 orders over the next several years, an internal Navy study leaked last week drove a new wave of speculation in the defense and aerospace industries.

The study, by the Navy's aviation arm, says the cost to buy and operate that service's version of the F-35 will be dramatically higher than predicted — 40 percent more than existing aircraft — and will put a serious squeeze on future budgets.

The report follows continued reports of F-35 development delays. It was also reported Jan. 6 that the 2011 Pentagon budget, set for release Feb. 1, will cut planned F-35 purchases.

The validity and accuracy of the Navy's cost analysis is open to debate. Navy officials did not comment or elaborate on the study, but several veteran defense observers said it was a sign that many in the naval aviation ranks remain less than committed to buying the sea service's version of the F-35.

By allowing the cost study to leak widely, "the Navy seems to be putting a log on the fire and prepping the battlefield to bail out" of the F-35 program, said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Strauss Military Reform Project and former longtime Senate defense staff member.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute and a consultant to Lockheed and other defense contractors, said the Navy study "is preposterously wrong. It makes no sense."

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