WASHINGTON — The powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday the US will have to cut the numbers of F-35 fighter jets it will purchase.
In a brief comment to reporters, McCain seemed to signal that the total projected buy for the Pentagon's most costly and ambitious program — 2,443 in total, spread across three models for the Air Force, Marines and Navy — is out of whack with budget realities. He said that cost growth in the program will mean fewer jets overall.
"We're going to have to reduce the buy," he said. "The number they are now quoting — there's just not going to be that many."
McCain, a longtime critic of the F-35, is known for hitting the program for a series of cost overruns and delays. But calling for a formal reduction in the Pentagon's buy of the jets has been a touchy subject in the Defense Department.
For years, the Pentagon and backers in Congress have fiercely guarded the 2,443 figure for the F-35, quickly shooting down talk that the number could be reduced.
That seemed to change earlier this year, when Gen. Joseph Dunford, now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in testimony that the Pentagon is "presently taking the newest strategic foundation and analyzing whether 2,443 aircraft is the correct number."
That was followed by similar written comments from Adm. John Richardson, who, during his hearing to be named Chief Naval Officer, wrote that he would work to "re-validate the appropriate number of aircraft the Navy requires."
The Pentagon has since denied that there is a major review of the F-35 buy underway – but acknowledged that, with budget uncertainty, all programs may be up for review.
Combined, the comments seem to have opened the door for a discussion – one that McCain, a critic of the F-35 program, appears eager to open wider.
It's bad timing for the program, which, after a relatively quiet year of success, has hit speed bumps in the last month. In September, Defense News revealed that concerns over ejection safety have forced the Pentagon to ground any F-35 pilots under 138 pounds from flying the jet.
Then, on Monday, elections in Canada handed power to Justin Trudeau, who has said that he plans to abandon the F-35 program in favor of a cheaper alternative. Canada had planned to buy 65 jets under the Conservative government of incumbent Prime Minister Stephen Harper, although that buy has been paused since 2010.
If Trudeau follows through on his plans, Canada would become the first nation to turn down the F-35 in competition. It could also become the first industrial partner to withdraw from the program, which local companies have said could cost CAN$11 billion (US$8 billion) in work over the life of the jet.
Officials from the program have emphasized the need to keep quantities of the jet rising in order to cause per-jet costs to drop.