March 15, 2006

US investigators urge F-35 funding slowdown

By Jim Wolf

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon should slow funding of
Lockheed Martin Corp.'s next-generation F-35 Joint Strike
Fighter, the costliest international warplane project, until it
is proven in flight tests, U.S. congressional investigators
said Wednesday.

"Significant development risk remains, and it is likely
that current cost and schedule goals will not be met," said the
non-partisan Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit
and investigative arm.

The F-35 -- at about $256 billion for the 2,593 aircraft
that the United States and Britain plan to buy -- represents a
unique drive to build a family of radar-evading, supersonic,
multi-role warplanes.

It is co-financed by seven countries along with the United
States and Britain -- Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada,
Australia, Denmark and Norway.

GAO said low-rate initial production was scheduled to start
next year despite "inadequate testing to prove a mature design"
for any of the three variants -- conventional, carrier-based
and short-takeoff, vertical-landing.

None of the three "production representative" models would
be in flight testing until 2009, nor would a fully configured,
integrated development aircraft until 2011 -- four years after
production begins, GAO said.

"To improve the chances for a successful outcome, we are
recommending the JSF program delay production and investments
in production capability until ... aircraft variants have been
proven to work in flight testing," it said.

The Pentagon, in comments included in the report, said its
current acquisition strategy would achieve the GAO objectives,
making new limits on production unnecessary.

John Kent, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said: "We believe
that the technologies that we're developing for this airplane
are very mature for this stage."


In another development, key U.S. senators on Wednesday
questioned a Pentagon plan to scrap a $2.4 billion second
engine development contract for the F-35.

"Relying on a single-engine design is a scenario that
presents unprecedented vulnerability," notably if a glitch
should ground the fleet, Senate Armed Services Committee
Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said at his second
hearing on the matter in two days.

The foreign partners -- led by Britain, which has committed
$2 billion -- together account for about 10 percent of the
development costs, and Washington, the rest, the Pentagon's
project director, Rear Adm. Steven Enewold, told the hearing.

Britain's top weapons buyer told the panel on Tuesday his
country would be unable to buy the F-35 unless the U.S. gave it
access to some of its classified technology. The minister for
defense procurement, Lord Drayson, said Britain wanted a second
engine but would not bolt over it.

Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed is the prime contractor
for the F-35, while Pratt & Whitney, part of United
Technologies Corp., was chosen to build the plane's initial

In a fiscal 2007 spending plan sent to Congress on February
6, President Bush called for ending the congressionally
mandated, alternate engine being developed in a 60-40
partnership by General Electric Co. and Britain's Rolls-Royce
Plc under a $2.4 billion deal awarded in August 2005.

Scott Donnelly, president and chief executive of GE
Aviation, and James Guyette, his counterpart at Rolls-Royce
North America, said in joint testimony that Pratt & Whitney's
windfall from F-35 engines could total $63 billion to $82
billion, including service during a projected 30-year life
cycle, if it had no competition.

Donnelly, in an interview with Reuters, said GE would be in
effect knocked from the fighter engine business, which he said
now accounts for at least half of his company's $3.5 billion a
year military-engine business.

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told the hearing
the Pentagon had concluded "it would be nice to have a second
engine, (but) it is not necessary and not affordable."

But Democratic panel member Sen. Edward Kennedy from
Massachusetts -- which is home to a GE facility that does
fighter engine work -- said: "We need to consider the long-term
effects on the industry and our national security, not just the
$1.8 billion that will be saved over the next five years."

His point was echoed by Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.