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Confirmation of the serious problems in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter development came yesterday when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dramatically fired the Marine general running the program. Maj. Gen. David Heinz, the program executive officer, took the blame for the delays and cost increases that have mounted in recent months. Gates also withheld $614 million in performance fees from prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
President Obama’s defense secretary, who also held the post under President George W. Bush, announced “a strategy to stabilize the cost and schedule” of the F-35 program, which includes an additional year for development. But he still approved nearly $11 billion for the jet in the fiscal 2011 U.S. defense budget that was also announced yesterday. This money will buy 42 aircraft “and possibly more, depending on contractor performance,” he said.
“I would say there are no insurmountable problems, technological or other, with the F-35,” Gates added, but he revealed that two joint estimating teams from outside the F-35 program office had been commissioned and they had reached some pessimistic conclusions. The restructuring comes just five months after Gates visited the Fort Worth headquarters of Lockheed Martin and was given what now appears to have been an overly optimistic briefing on progress of the huge project.
The proposed FY2011 defense budget of $708 billion is 3.4-percent higher than the current year’s. There is new money for missile defense and long-range strike programs, including bomber upgrades, but the proposed EP-X electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft for the U.S. Navy has been scrapped.
This budget again includes no funds for the Boeing C-17 airlifter or the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136 alternative fighter engine for the F-35. Congress added funds for both programs this fiscal year, against the Pentagon’s wishes, but Gates said he would “strongly recommend that the President veto any legislation that sustains the unnecessary continuation of these two programs.”