WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter loomed like a ghost over the May 25 confirmation hearing of President Joe Biden’s pick for Air Force secretary, who famously called the program a case of “acquisition malpractice.”

If confirmed, Frank Kendall — who oversaw the program during the Obama administration as the Defense Department’s acquisition executive — will become the Air Force’s top civilian at a time when the service grapples with the decision of how many F-35 aircraft to buy, both in the near term and over the lifespan of the program.

But despite repeated questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kendall said little to tip his hand on how he might further shape the program.

“The F-35 is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world and will be so for quite some time. It’s a complex, expensive weapon, unfortunately. But it is a dominant weapon when it goes up against earlier generation aircraft,” Kendall told lawmakers when asked on his views on the aircraft.

“But the concern I have is that the complaints still come,” said Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, SASC’s top Republican.

The Air Force is evaluating its tactical aviation fleet, including whether to go through with a planned buy of 1,763 F-35As. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has said that the service may seek out a low-cost, clean-sheet multirole fighter to replace its oldest F-16s — one of the platforms originally slated to be succeeded by the F-35.

Meanwhile, CNN reported earlier this month that Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official during the Trump administration, had sought to cut the Air Force’s F-35 buy to about 800 jets, further inciting worries about the program’s future.

During the hearing, Inhofe spoke about the Air Force’s 2009 decision to curb F-22 procurement from 750 to 187 aircraft. That cut has contributed to the F-22′s high operations and sustainment costs, which are endemic to small aircraft fleets.

“We watched this happen,” Inhofe said. “My concern right now is, what kind of actions could we take to make sure we’re fielding the number of F-35s needed to fight against Russia and China? It’s a different game all together now, we all understand that. But we are going to have to be dealing with the numbers.”

Kendall’s response fell short of promising to support the current program of record.

“We have to get to an affordable mix that meets our needs as driven by the national defense strategy. That’s what should guide those investments,” he said.

However, if sustainment costs are a concern, it will be important for the Air Force to continue buying F-35s in numbers that will allow the fleet size to grow and operations costs to become more economical, he said.

“If there is one thing that I think would drive costs down overall, it’s continuing to buy,” Kendall said.

“I know there’s an issue with the total number that’s been on the table for some years, what the requirement is. My own view at this point in time is that we’re well short of that number, and that [what] we should be working on most is getting the cost down and keeping the procurement at a rate that makes sense.”

Although the Air Force plans to continue buying 48 F-35As as part of its fiscal 2022 budget request, it intends downsize its buy to 43 aircraft a year from FY23 through FY26, according to Air Force talking points reported by Air Force Magazine.

It’s difficult to gauge whether Kendall will lead the Air Force in a different direction with regards to the program.

As former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Kendall was sometimes highly critical of the F-35, which was facing high production costs and numerous serious technical flaws. But by the end of his tenure in 2016, he spoke frequently about how the program had turned a corner.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the Air Force “should be very assertive” during the fiscal 2023 budget cycle in asking for the number of F-35s it needs to drive down the unit cost of each aircraft.

“I share the sentiments of a number of my colleagues that the F-35 should be advanced,” he said.

During the hearing, senators also considered the nominations of Susanna Blume as director of the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and Heidi Shyu, who is tapped for undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.

Both nominees faced little opposition during the hearing, signaling that they — along with Kendall — will cruise toward an easy confirmation.

Shyu, the Army’s acquisition executive during the Obama administration, said one of her goals would be to reorient spending on defense technologies toward developing new capabilities.

“Today, sustainment makes up 70% of total weapon system cost, with development and procurement making up 30%. DoD should strive to flip this ratio and invest more in the development of new technologies than it does in the sustainment of legacy system,” she said in written testimony.

To do that, the department should spend more money on advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons and synthetic biology, she said. It should also make investments in advanced materials that would help the services decrease their logistics footprint and cut their fuel use.

Blume, who was previously deputy chief of staff for programs and plans, stated that her goal as CAPE director would be to ensure the department aligned its financial resources with the priorities laid out in the national defense strategy, as well as to provide rigorous independent cost estimates of major weapons systems to Congress.

In particular, CAPE should increase the Pentagon’s collection of data related to operations and sustainment, software, and middle-tier acquisition programs in order to improve the accuracy of future cost assessments, she wrote in response to lawmakers’ advance policy questions.

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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