WASHINGTON: The F-35, protected fiercely by senior Pentagon, Air Force and program officials for the last few years, is no longer safe from possible budget cuts as the 2017 budget is finalized, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics said this morning.
“It’s impossible in these budgets to entirely protect it,” Frank Kendall told reporters. “It is our most cutting edge capability. Dollar for dollar it probably gives us more combat capability than any other investment that we’re making, but we’ve got a lot of other things that we’ve got to do as well. So it’s not entirely fenced. I can’t say that it’s entirely fenced.”
That jibes with comments yesterday by Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, While he made clear the service would vigorously defend the F-35, he also rejected the idea of buying lots of “expendable” drones.
While Kendall was speaking, so was Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Defense Department has a current requirement for 2,443 F-35s. The senator told reporters he was not saying “we shouldn’t have 2,443. I just want to know how you get there.” McCain said, The Senate report accompanying the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act required an evaluation within six months of how many F-35s the military can purchase. “If it’s not a realistic estimate, shouldn’t we have a realistic estimate?”
McCain said he was “not making a judgment but it seems to me that if we had planned on originally procuring a thousand of them and instead we have procured 179, there may be some mismatch there,” McCain said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.
The Pentagon’s budget now calls for 66 jets in fiscal 2017. That should go up to 92 by 2020.
The US “would have to purchase 100 F-35s per year for more than 20 years at a cost of $10 billion to $12 billion a year,” McCain said. “That seems unlikely, and all that assumes the F-35 will provide the necessary capability.”
While Kendall made it clear the F-35 is no longer safe from budgetary predators, he also made the very clear argument that it “probably gives us more combat capability than any other investment that we’re making…” Times appear so tough with increased threats from Daesh, the continuing mess in Afghanistan, transnational terrorism, and the demands of presence across the Pacific that policymakers have made the decision they cannot cut the single biggest cost item in the budget — personnel.
That leaves weapons, as Comptroller Mike McCord made clear Monday. And nothing is a bigger target than the F-35 because it’s the Pentagon’s single largest program.