WASHINGTON — In a surprise move, Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain is looking to eliminate the F-35 joint program office, currently the hub of the gargantuan operation that spans three US services and 12 nations.

The provision in his version of the defense policy bill, approved by the committee Thursday as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, would disband the joint program office (JPO) after the F-35 reaches full-rate production in April 2019.

The responsibility for the program would then fall to the US departments of the Navy and the Air Force, according to a summary of the bill released Thursday.

The JPO declined to comment on pending legislation. But a source familiar with the issue said McCain's proposal fails to account for the international reach of the JSF program.

"They took a very US-centric viewpoint on it, forgetting about that there are 11 other countries involved in the F-35 program," according to the source. "I don't think that the provision accounts for international aspects to the program."

The Arizona Republican McCain has long criticized the F-35 for cost overruns, schedule delays and technical glitches. Now, he is suggesting the effort to build the fifth-generation fighter as a joint program across three variants has failed.

"Despite aspirations for a joint aircraft, the F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C are essentially three distinct aircraft, with significantly different missions and capability requirements," according to the summary. "Devolving this program to the services will help ensure the proper alignment of responsibility and accountability the F-35 needs and has too often lacked."

The move is part of the committee's effort to hold the Pentagon accountable, promote transparency and protect taxpayer dollars, according to the summary language.

McCain also made retirement of the A-10 contingent on completion of the F-35's initial operational testing and evaluation period, as well as comparison testing of both jets' ability to conduct close-air support. The House included a similar provision, spearheaded by Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in its version of the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill.

  • Require the Air Force disclose to the congressional defense committees the value of the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) contract awarded to Northrop Grumman last year to build the Air Force's next-generation B-21 bomber.
  • Establish strict program-baseline and cost-control thresholds for the B-21, and requires quarterly performance reports on the program.
  • Authorize $321 million for the UH-1N helicopter replacement program, including a $302 million increase for the Air Force to procure eight HH-60 Army Black Hawk aircrafts to accelerate the effort.
  • Limit funds for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalization program unless the Air Force uses a fixed-price contract for the EMD phase, and develops options for accelerating the program.
  • Authorize $10.5 billion overall for the F-35 program, including $8.5 billion for the procurement of 63 aircraft: 43 Air Force F-35As, 16 Marine Corps F-35Bs and four Navy F-35Cs.
  • Authorize $85 million for two Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets.
  • Authorize $186 million, including an $88 million increase, for F-1 capability upgrades.
  • Authorize $453 million in overseas contingency operations funding for 25 MQ-9 Reapers to meet combatant command requirements.
  • Limit funds for the EC-130H Compass Call recapitalization program unless the Air Force conducts an open competition for the replacement aircraft.
  • Repeal a provision in last year's omnibus appropriations bill that allowed United Launch Alliance to continue buying the Russian RD-180 rocket engine to power its Atlas V launch vehicle for military space-launch missions.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman