The recent grounding of the F-35 fleet after an engine fire produced no calls for congressional action. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — US Senate Armed Services Committee members on Tuesday reacted to the latest F-35 setback with more resignation than anger.
As panel members entered a classified briefing on Iraq, even those who expressed concerns about an engine fire that has grounded the entire Lockheed Martin-made fleet signaled there is little Congress can — and will — do in response.
The engine fire occurred on a runway at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, from which Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson hails.
“They’ll get it fixed,” Nelson told reporters with a wide smile.
Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said the fire and subsequent grounding “should not, in my opinion, affect the future of the program.”
Asked if the program is simply too big to fail, Inhofe replied: “It’s too modern to fail.”
The too-big-to-fail sentiment about the fighter program developed after former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009 capped the F-35’s sister fighter initiative, the F-22, at about 190 jets. That left the F-35 as America’s lone fighter program to churn out replacements for its aging Cold War-era fighters.
Inhofe said the United States must find a way to make the program work because the fifth-generation fighter is key to ensuring “air superiority.”
Panel member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed the most frustration among members heading into the briefing
The chamber’s “maverick” said the F-35 program, often over-budget and behind schedule — and the most expensive in Pentagon history — is the worst example “of the military-industrial-congressional complex.”
Panel Vice Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said defense officials need to examine the program’s entire schedule because “these are serious issues.”
But he did not say changes should be mandated by Congress.
SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, just back from Afghanistan, said he has yet to be briefed on the engine problem.
He told reporters he “hopes” the fire will not trigger further program delays.
None said legislative language is needed to address the problem or alter program plans. ■