The state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet is not living up to its backers’ high expectations, falling short of key readiness milestones that have bedeviled the $428 billion program, Pentagon officials acknowledged Wednesday.
The admission came on the same day the Government Accountability Office released a new report that concluded the Pentagon “faces challenges keeping the growing fleet ready to perform its mission, largely due to insufficient planning.”
Those challenges include shortages of spare parts and poor performance of the information technology system used to sustain the aircraft, which GAO said is plagued by data inaccuracies.
The Defense Department’s head of operational testing Robert Behler told a House hearing Wednesday that the “operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains at a level below service expectations.”
The highly touted fighter jet, he said was “breaking down more often than planned and taking longer to fix.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, said the program’s shortfalls highlighted “unacceptably high operating and support costs,” which led to about half of the fleet being inoperable throughout 2017 and 2018.
The House panel has been looking into the program’s status after years of missed budgets and production delays.
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of acquisition and sustainment, acknowledged the issues with the Pentagon’s costliest weapon, but expressed confidence that the issues with the program will be solved.
“The department is actively transforming the F-35 program to deliver the efficiencies, agilities and readiness outcomes we need in a time during strategic competition,” she told lawmakers.
The hearing came just hours before President Trump hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for highly anticipated discussions that were expected to include the clash over Turkey recent acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.
Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system sent shock waves through the NATO alliance, of which the U.S. and Turkey are both members, as Washington and NATO officials fear Turkey’s use of the S-400 could compromise the effectiveness of the F-35 and give Russia insights into the new plane’s capabilities and systems.
In the wake of Ankara’s purchase of the Russian system, the U.S. announced it is revoking Turkey’s access to the international program to build components of the F-35. According to Pentagon officials, Turkish companies make nearly 1,000 parts for the F-35.
The F-35 controversy did not come up at a joint press conference by Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan on Wednesday, although Mr. Trump said earlier in the day the issue was on the agenda for the two leaders’ private talks.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Mr. Smith said “it would be better for Turkey to be back in the F-35 program. They cannot be back in the program if they have the S-400.”
“I do think it’s unfortunate that [Mr. Trump] hasn’t put more pressure on Turkey and that Turkey has felt like they could do things that are problematic to that alliance, like invade Syria and purchase the S-400,” Mr. Smith continued.
Mr. Trump has at times expressed sympathy for Turkey’s decision to obtain the Russian system, and over the summer said he doesn’t “blame” Ankara for their purchase.
Mr. Smith suggested Washington should pressure Turkey to cancel the purchase and stop the integration of the S-400 into Turkey’s arsenal — a move that could threaten the military capabilities of the NATO alliance.
“The world is a better place if Turkey is a strong ally of the U.S. and a strong member of NATO,” Mr. Smith said. “We would be in a better place if we were able to get along with Turkey.”
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