House, Senate offer competing plans for F-35, KC-46 and JSTARS
WASHINGTON — Due to rising F-35 sustainment costs, the U.S. Senate’s annual defense policy bill proposes shaving two aircraft off the president’s request to buy 77 in 2019.
And that means there’s some closed-door wrangling ahead as staff and lawmakers reconcile competing House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Senate Armed Services Committee-approved bill approached not only the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but the KC-46 tanker aircraft and E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, differently than the House-approved bill.
The SASC bill would authorize one fewer of the Lockheed Martin-made F-35s for the Air Force and Navy to redirect the savings into funding for spares, modifications and depot repair capability. The bill also mandates quarterly updates to Congress on the status and direction of the F-35 program, codifying already regular communication with Congress.
“There was concern the program wasn’t sufficiently balanced for sustainment costs of the aircraft, so within the monies for F-35, the adjustment was made to put the money into sustainment that would be sufficient,” an SASC aide said Friday. “That entailed a minor reduction in aircraft procurement.”
The idea, according to an SASC summary of its bill, was to “establish a solid sustainment base before the steep ramp of production overwhelms the enterprise’s ability to sustain the aircraft.”
The move comes as Air Force officials have sought to drive down sustainment costs to that of fourth-generation fighters like the F-16 and in the wake of reports the service would cut its purchases if costs don’t sufficiently fall.
The Government Accountability Office projected in 2017 that total sustainment costs over the life of the F-35 program could amount to more than $1 trillion during a 60-year life cycle.
The SASC approved its version of the massive NDAA after meeting behind closed doors last week, but the text of the bill itself is not expected for at least several days.
The NDAA is several steps from becoming law. The House passed its version May 24, and the Senate must pass its version before the two are reconciled over the summer into a final bill for both chambers to pass.
The House bill would force the Pentagon to proceed with its JSTARS recapitalization plans the Air Force would like to abandon in favor of a new advanced battle management system. Even though the House and SASC would put restrictions on retiring the legacy JSTARS, the SASC bill would supporting the Air Force’s pursuit of advanced battle management systems by including funding to accelerate it.
The idea behind the ABMS is instead of having a commercial business jet-sized surveillance aircraft close to the battlefield ― where it is vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles ― troops would have a fused picture from the Air Force’s current inventory of aircraft and drones to do the ground surveillance mission.
Lawmakers in both chambers have expressed concerns that it will take so long accomplish that it’s unwise to scrap the existing program.
“There’s a recognition in the Senate bill that we don’t want to retire aircraft too quickly before a replacement capability arises such that we end up with a gap,” an SASC staffer said. “We do not direct them to proceed with the recap out of concerns with survivability, which we share with the department.”
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, in Senate testimony May 17, said that to operate both JSTARs and the ABMS, it would take a whopping $7 billion more than the Air Force’s budget proposal.
The SASC bill authorizes $2.3 billion to procure 14 KC-46 aircraft, which is one aircraft fewer than the administration’s request, to — according to the bill summary — “restore program accountability.”
The committee was concerned with the program’s repeated delays and is applying its leverage. “It’s a signal to the [Defense] Department and to Boeing that we feel strongly that they need to get their act together and get this program moving forward,“ another SASC aide said.
Boeing has racked up more than $3 billion worth of pretax charges on the KC-46 due to cost overruns and schedule delays. Plus, the Air Force may not accept the first KC-46 tanker until it reverses a serious technical issue involving the refueling boom — an issue Boeing has vowed to fix before delivery of the first tanker this summer.
Valerie Insinna, in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.