WASHINGTON — After the November election, scores of political appointees in the Defense Department will likely lose their jobs as the next US president picks new officials to drive his or her agenda forward.
One constant, however, is the joint strike fighter, and Pentagon top weapons buyer Frank Kendall said his successor will have to grapple with a host of challenges to the F-35 program during the next four years, including the move to full-rate production and first round of block upgrades.
In recent budget cycles, mandated spending caps by Congress have necessitated that the DoD shortchange its overall F-35 buy to fund other priorities, Kendall said. For instance, the Air Force in its 2017 budget request delayed the procurement of five F-35As to a future year.
As the program hurtles toward full-rate production in 2019, that needs to change, Kendall acknowledged. But buying the planned number of F-35s every year will continue to be difficult because of the number of competing acquisition priorities.
“We really want to stop that,” he told reporters following the Common Defense 2016 conference on Wednesday. “Given the [nuclear] triad recapitalization and other things going on, it’s always tempting when you look at your balance sheet to say: 'I can get a lot of money for not doing as many F-35s.' Dollar for dollar, it’s the most combat power we can buy, so we shouldn’t do that. But if you don’t do that, you’re forced to do something else that is very painful.”
Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, highlighted that problem during a panel on the budget outlook.
"We’re in a zero-sum budget environment, and there's a certain amount of money that they can agree to for defense each year,” he said at the conference. “You'll never know exactly where it will be, but they will agree to that top line, and they have to work within that. So anything new you want to put into the budget is, by definition, coming at the expense of something that was already there."
Beyond fiscal challenges, the F-35 program will also have to move past its final round of testing and into full-rate production. Despite ongoing criticisms from the department’s Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), Kendall said he expects the program to move forward unless there is “some unforeseen catastrophe” during initial operational test and evaluation. (end of excerpt)
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