Congress tells Pentagon’s F-35 office to start talking

An F-16 (left) escorts the first F-35 built at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics off the runway at NAS Fort Worth JRB Carswell Field on Dec. 15, 2006.
An F-16 (left) escorts the first F-35 built at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics off the runway at NAS Fort Worth JRB Carswell Field on Dec. 15, 2006. Star-Telegram archives

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill scolded the Pentagon office that is assigned to work with Lockheed Martin on negotiating a price for the F-35 fighter jet, the nation’s most expensive defense program.

Inside a 372-page document on the impact of the 2017 budget on defense spending sits two pages dedicated to the F-35 fighter jet, assembled in Fort Worth, Texas, by Lockheed.

The document criticizes the Pentagon office tasked with running the F-35 program for failing to properly communicate with Congress.

“Throughout the fiscal year 2017 budget review process, the Joint Strike Fighter Joint Program Office provided insufficient justification and incomplete information in an untimely manner,” the document states. “It is imperative that requested information is received promptly for proper congressional oversight of this major defense acquisition program.”

The document is part of a temporary spending bill that lasts through Sept. 30 and received the blessing of both parties after weeks of negotiations. It includes an $15 billion increase in defense spending, although not as much as President Donald Trump wanted. The spending bill is expected to be signed by Trump before midnight on Friday, avoiding a government shutdown.

“They need to be transparent, don’t they?” said Rep. Roger Williams, an Austin, Texas, Republican. “We need to have better communications, we need to demand that they watch expenses. This is taxpayer money they are spending. There should be no surprises in Congress based on what the Pentagon has done.”

Congress says in the report that the Pentagon failed to contract the number of F-35 that it asked for in the 2015 and 2016 budget bills, which resulted in “impeding production efficiencies.”

“Four F-35s included in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2015 and 13 F-35s included in the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2016 were not part of their respective low rate initial production (LRIP) contracts due to the ... contracting strategy,” the document reads.

Richard Aboulafia, a military aircraft analyst with Teal Group, a Northern Virginia based aeronautics analysis firm, said the difference between the number of F-35’s appropriated by Congress and ultimately built by Lockheed could be due to production bottlenecks on the Fort Worth assembly line or among Lockheed’s myriad subcontractors.

“This is clearly not a problem that can be solved by throwing cash at it,” Aboulafia said. “It might be that planes need to be modified and reworked, and trying to get the learning curve with three different planes is difficult. Production is happening at a much lower rate than we hoped for.”

Part of the difference between Congress’ desires for the F-35 and what is ultimately agreed to between the Pentagon and Lockheed is the complexities of the F-35C, the variant of the jet designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers. The F-35C has experienced issues with excessive shaking during take off and inadequate wing strength in recent months, and those problems need to be corrected before full production ramps up.

“It’s very telling that the Joint Program Office is not providing information Congress is asking for at this time in particular, when the program office is really working to secure a significant increase in production,” said Dan Grazier, a fellow at The Project for Government Oversight, a government watchdog group that opposes the F-35. “The program is supposed to shift into test and operation period, so this is a very concerning ... development.”

Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis ordered a review of the F-35C in January after Trump complained that the F-35 program was too expensive. The review compares the F-35C with the F-18 Super Hornet, a plane built by Lockheed competitor Boeing. The review is still ongoing.

The Pentagon did not return a request for comment. Lockheed Martin declined to comment.

While Congress provides oversight for the F-35 program and allocates money to the Pentagon, it does not have the ability to negotiate with Lockheed on a price for the jets, which recently fell below $100 million per jet for the conventional take off and landing model.

But critics of the program, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are worried that long-term costs of the F-35 program will continue to increase even as the price per plane goes down. The Government Accountability Office released a report in April saying that F-35 testing delays could cost taxpayers and additional $1 billion

“I have been recently informed the F-35’s system development and demonstration phase has been delayed another seven months, another costly stumble that will cost the American taxpayer at least $500 million,” McCain said in a statement. “This is yet another troubling sign for a program that has already nearly doubled in cost, taken nearly two decades to field, and has long been the poster child for acquisition malpractice.”

The F-35 is scheduled to begin full rate production in April 2019 and the testing delays put that date in jeopardy.

But Aboulafia said there isn’t much Congress can do other than complain, unless it wants to pull the plug altogether, which is highly unlikely.

“There are two flavors of programs in the Pentagon, one is a healthy program and the other is a death spiral,” Aboulafia said. “Unless they want to inflict a death spiral they can give the money and complain while they do it.”

Vera Bergengruen contributed to this article.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty