WASHINGTON — House lawmakers upheld language in the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill that would tie the number of F-35s the U.S. military can procure to the cost of sustaining the jet, but an amendment passed Wednesday night could allow the Pentagon to more easily circumvent those cost constraints.

On Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., unveiled his “chairman’s mark” of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, which included provisions that would pose affordability constraints on how many F-35s the military can buy or maintain at a time.

“If you bring the sustainment cost down, we’ll buy more,” Smith said during a Aug. 31 event at the Brookings Institution. “If you don’t, we’re not going to, simply because of the cost that is involved in that.”

Specifically, if the military does not meet the affordability targets for “cost per tail per year” — which measures the average price of operating, maintaining and upgrading a single aircraft — the services will not be able to procure the number of F-35s planned as part of the program of record. (In FY20, the cost per tail for an F-35A was about $8 million. The U.S. Air Force’s target for an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing model is $4.1 million.)

The NDAA also included language that would prohibit the Defense Department from entering into a performance-based logistics contract with Lockheed Martin for the F-35 unless sustainment cost metrics are met.

An amendment approved by the committee Wednesday pushed by two years the timeline for enacting those constraints. Instead of going into effect in FY26, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy will have until 2028 to ensure the price of sustainment meets affordability targets.

And importantly, the amendment included language that would allow the secretary of defense to waive the caps, if “procuring additional quantities of a variant of an F-35 aircraft above the applicable quantity limit [is] required to meet the national military strategy requirements of the combatant commanders.”

Democrat Rep. Marc Veasey, who represents the Fort Worth, Texas area, where Lockheed Martin produces the F-35, offered the amendment.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers — the union that represents aerospace workers such as those who produce the F-35 — sent committee members a letter urging them to vote in favor of Veasey’s amendment.

“Tens of thousands of Machinist Union members across the country proudly work manufacturing and maintaining the F-35 and its components,” wrote president Robert Martinez in an Aug. 31 letter. “These high-quality jobs in the defense aerospace industry are of upmost importance to the Machinists Union, our members in the aerospace industry and to the economic security of the United States.”

F-35 engine competition

Lawmakers also showed interest in developing a follow on for the F-35′s engine, the Pratt & Whitney-made F135.

“Some of the engines are burning out faster and taking longer to fix than we expected,” Smith said at the Brookings event. This added strain on the operational F135s is contributing to an engine shortage, with the F-35 depot at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., unable to repair power modules fast enough to meet the needs of the fleet.

“We have the ability now I think to create engine competition going forward,” Smith said.

The House version of the NDAA would compel the Defense Department to submit a report detailing a strategy for integrating the F-35 with the propulsion systems currently in development under the Adaptive Engine Transition Program.

The report required by HASC would compel the Pentagon to lay out how it would structure a competition to begin retrofitting the Air Force’s F-35A inventory with the AETP engine beginning in FY27, how it would implement the engine upgrade and the associated cost and schedule.

A separate amendment approved by HASC Wednesday would require similar reports about integrating AETP engines with the F-35B short takeoff and landing model and F-35C carrier variant, which are flown by the Marine Corps and Navy.

Both Pratt & Whitney and General Electric are currently testing AETP engines, and will share data with the Air Force this fiscal year to inform future engine upgrade plans, said Air Force acquisition executive Darlene Costello during a July hearing.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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