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Fri, Jan 05, 2007

JSF Program Gets Top Cover From DOD Deputy Secretary England

Says USAF And Navy Can't Cut 2008 Orders As Planned

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England nixed plans by the US Air Force and the US Navy to cut orders of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from their 2008 budgets. The USAF had proposed cutting its orders from six to four, and the Navy planned to cut all F-35 orders from its budget.

In a "Program Decision Memorandum" dated December 13, England says not so fast. He's ordered the USAF now to keep its original order for six, and the Navy to order four. But, he's allowing the two services to order fewer jets than planned between 2009 and 2013.

The reason for the change? England says he doesn't want the services to stop supporting the international project in the face of rising costs supporting the war in Iraq.

Military-aircraft analyst Thomas Ehrhard told Bloomberg News, "England's decision amounts to putting his finger in the F- 35 dike," because both the Navy and Air Force are indicating "waning" support in the face of these other demands.

The F-35's estimated $276 billion price tag "represents a huge chunk" of future spending, "but so far, nobody at the top is willing to pull the plug," Ehrhard said.

The F-35 Lightning II, like most defense appropriation projects, started with lofty goals. As conceived in 1996, the military was purchase nearly 3,000 of the short-range fighters. The number has steadily dropped to its current total of 2,458 including 15 development aircraft.

The only service yet to drop its original order total is the Air Force, which plans to buy 1,763.

The Navy and Marines had originally planned for nearly 1,100, but that number dropped by over 500 when Navy and Marine fighter squadrons were consolidated.

The "international" part of the project includes 138 planes destined for the UK, with Italy opting for as many as 131. Another 400 or so would go to Turkey, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, Norway and Denmark.

Defense analyst Loren Thompson told Bloomberg the Navy is torn between funding aircraft or funding ships. He says the service believes it can't afford all the aircraft it's slated for and still add some 30 ships to its fleet by 2020 as planned.

Additionally, the Navy and Marine Corps are at odds regarding how many of each variant to buy. Thompson says senior admirals oppose buying the Marine short take-off and vertical landing variant, while Marine leaders question the value of the Navy version that requires a carrier from which to operate.

Other industry observers say the program was moving too fast anyway making production slow-downs inevitable. They say the new production schedule looks much more realistic, and restoring short-term funding is good news.

FMI: www.dod.gov

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