General Fires Back at Trump: F-35 ‘Not Out of Control’ (Just Needs Another Half Billion)

F-35Bs fly over the USS America earlier this year during sea trials.

Lockheed Martin Photo

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F-35Bs fly over the USS America earlier this year during sea trials.

The Pentagon’s F-35 boss says costs are falling and he anticipates briefing Trump’s transition team soon, but he needs another $532 million to finish flight testing.

One week after president-elect Donald Trump criticized the high cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program — the general in charge of the project warned it might need more money and time to complete flight testing.

Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan defended the U.S. military’s need for the stealthy jet and touted his track record in helping right a struggling project.

Just one week ago, Trump tweeted: “The F-35 program and cost is out of control.”

“This program is not out of control,” the blunt-talking Bogdan said Monday when asked what misconception about the F-35 program he would like to leave behind entering 2017.

Bogdan, who took charge of the F-35 program four years ago, has been known for his tough talk on Lockheed Martin, which builds the plane, and Pratt & Whitney, which makes its engine. The general routinely points out, as he did again on Monday, the project has been in much better shape since 2011, when Pentagon leaders put a plan in place to fix a decade of mismanagement, underperformance, delays, and cost overruns.

But Bogdan did something on Monday he hasn’t had to do since taking the F-35’s reins: declare that he will need more money to finish flight testing. In 2011, when the Pentagon “reset” the project, officials predicted flight testing would conclude by Oct. 31, 2017. Bogdan has previously said that date could slip several months. He now predicts flight testing will now finish by Feb. 28, 2018, and Pentagon officials say it could wrap as late as May 2018.

Up to $532 million will be needed, Bogdan said. That will cover $100 million removed from the F-35 accounts by Pentagon leaders in 2014 for other, unrelated projects. Another $165 million was used to meet new requirements for the aircraft that have been added since 2011. The remaining $267 million, he said, is due to problems that have arisen over the past five years.

By comparison, between 2001 and 2011, the F-35 program was delayed six years and and over budget by $13 billion, Bogdan said.

“If anybody would have told us in 2011 that we’d be within a few months and a couple of hundred million dollars of a $13 billion re-baseline, we’d all have slapped the table and said: ‘We’d take it,’” Bogdan said.

Trump’s Pentagon transition team has not been briefed by the F-35 program office. Since his comments on Twitter, there have been discussions of a meeting. As of Monday, one is not on the books, although Bogdan anticipated one being scheduled soon.

“Our job is going to be to give the administration the good, the bad, and the ugly about this program, and let them make their own decisions,” he said. “If given the opportunity, I would like to try and explain to the new administration that this a vastly different program from 2011 on…I’ll just lay the facts out on the table and let them make their own judgements cause I don’t think the program cost-wise is out of control, nor do I think it’s out of control schedule-wise.”

Despite the cost increase and schedule delay, Bogdan said the cost of the plane is generally shrinking with each annual buy is shrinking.

In the Pentagon’s latest order, its ninth, one Air Force F-35A costs $102.1 million, down from $108 million in the previous batch; a Marine Corps F-35B costs $131.6 million, down from $134 million; and a Navy F-35C is $132.2 million, up from $129 million. Bogdan said the F-35C went up in price because the Navy only bought two planes, half the amount of the previous year.

The price tags are based on the $6.1 billion deal the Pentagon gave Lockheed for 57 planes. The Pentagon is currently in negotiations with Lockheed for the next order of nearly 100 new F-35s. The two sides are slated to sit down in mid-January. Bogdan said he does not expect the two sides to reach an agreement before Jan. 20, the day Trump takes the oath of office.

As Trump’s team gets up to speed, Bogdan wants them to know he considers the F-35 vital in the Pentagon’s future war plans.

“I think that this program is vital for air dominance for us and our allies in the next 50 years,” Bogdan said.

While the plane replaces numerous jets in the U.S. military inventory, Bogdan noted that some countries buying the expensive plane are relying on the F-35 to replace their entire fighter force.

“It is a necessary program for the United States to maintain its security,” he said.

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