House lawmakers aim to cut F-35 buy as patience with delays wears thin

House lawmakers aim to cut F-35 buy as patience with delays wears thin

A proposed House policy bill would slash the number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters the Pentagon would buy in fiscal 2025 as lawmakers’ patience with the program and manufacturer Lockheed Martin wears thin.

The Pentagon’s proposed FY25 budget called for buying 68 of the fifth-generation fighter — 42 F-35As for the Air Force, plus 13 F-35Bs and 13 F-35Cs for the Navy and Marine Corps.

But the chairman’s mark of the House Armed Services Committee’s proposed FY25 National Defense Authorization Act would first cut that purchase to 58 jets. On top of that, the Pentagon would not be allowed to accept delivery of 10 of those jets until the defense secretary certifies to lawmakers that several problems with the F-35 are fixed.

That means that at least at first, the Pentagon would only receive 48 jets in all next year.

In a background briefing with reporters, a senior staff member for the committee’s Republican majority expressed displeasure with the F-35 program and Lockheed Martin. The Pentagon has halted deliveries of the newest F-35s while Lockheed sorts out problems with its Technology Refresh 3 upgrades. An undisclosed number of jets are now sitting at the company’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Over the last couple of years, our members have grown frustrated with the F-35 program,” the Republican staffer said. “This year, we are struggling with accepting airplanes from Lockheed Martin when they come off the line. So our members wanted to address that because if you have an aircraft come off [the production line and] we’re not accepting delivery, what’s the point? They’re just paperweights at that point.”

When asked for comment, Lockheed Martin wrote in an email to Defense News: “We look forward to working with the administration and the Congress as the president’s fiscal year 2025 budget receives full consideration in the months ahead.”

TR-3 is the name of a batch of upgrades to the F-35′s software and hardware, including improved displays, computer memory and processing power, which will lay the foundation for a more extensive series of upgrades known as Block 4.

But problems with TR-3′s software, as well as delays in production on some key components, have kept the newest F-35s from working properly. TR-3 is now more than a year overdue, and deliveries may not resume until the third quarter of 2024. Even when delivery begins for the jets featuring TR-3, which could happen this year, they won’t be ready for combat until 2025.

Another senior staffer for the committee’s Democrats said lawmakers want to see the F-35 program succeed and that the Pentagon sorely needs the jet. But the problems with TR-3 have to be sorted through so the Block 4 upgrades — which will include the ability to carry more weapons and better electronic warfare capabilities — can follow, he added.

The Republican staffer said cutting the initial 10 F-35s from the procurement plan would save roughly $1 billion, which could then be reinvested into the program to ensure they work properly when they roll out of the factory and are delivered to the military.

He highlighted the jets’ software issues and radar problems as items that must be fixed, noting it would be better to buy fewer jets to ensure the ones that are delivered work properly and aren’t left sitting in Fort Worth.

“That’s better for the long-term health of the platform,” the Republican staffer said.

The Republican staffer added that the withholding of 10 more jets’ deliveries would prod the Pentagon to deliver plans to fix the aircraft’s problems, and encourage acquisition strategies that would improve issues found throughout the F-35 program.

The Republican staffer said the report on the F-35′s initial operational test and evaluation phase had several recommendations for things that need fixed with the jet, and that these reports should help provide a way forward.

“We’re doing a number of things to try and mitigate some problems that the F-35 is having in production so that it gets to the warfighter sooner,” the Republican staffer said.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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