The Pentagon's purchase of F-35 Lightning II combat jets may have to be stretched out, the top U.S. uniformed official said.
AN F-35B LIGHTNING II fighter lands during a test flight. U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced support for the F-35 program. (Lockheed Martin)
"We are committed, that is to say, the U.S. military, to the development of the fifth-generation fighter, clearly," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at a Dec. 9 Atlantic Council event in Washington. "There are some fact-of-life changes that we'll probably have to make based on the ability to procure it on timelines that we'd like to have."
George Little, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, said Dec. 8 that no decisions have been made yet on the F-35. He reiterated Panetta's strong support for the tri-service program.
"He believes that the F-35 program is important to pursue," Little said. "That it will give us capabilities that we need to maintain our edge in certain areas."
Dempsey said the F-35 is threatened from a different direction: Europe's financial troubles might undercut those partners on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
"When I mentioned earlier about our exposure to a potential problem in the euro zone, that's one of the issues that I was alluding to, their ability to continue to partner with us in that joint venture," Dempsey said.
"But it will clearly put them at risk if all the economic predictions about a potential collapse were to occur - inflation, devaluation," the general said. "Then … they would have to make some national decisions about reallocation of resources that could potentially affect the JSF."
Dempsey's comments came shortly after a report was delivered to the office of Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's acting procurement chief, calling for production of the aircraft to be slowed down while 13 test issues are resolved.
The report also declared the Lightning II's design fundamentally sound.
"There may be issues regarding the F-35 program," Little said. "Any large weapons program generally has issues from time to time. And we are aware of certain issues with the F-35 program. But we believe it's important to continue to invest in the program."
Panetta postponed a planned Dec. 9 visit to Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., where the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps' F-35 variants are being tested.
A senior Defense Department official said the Marines had hoped to convince the secretary to take the F-35B short-take-off/vertical-landing variant off the two-year "probation" that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates had slapped on it.
During the taping of "This Week in Defense News" on Dec. 8, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, said his service would do everything it can to protect the F-35, the Long Range Strike bomber and the KC-46 tanker program.
"There are three programs which we will sustain, and that is the F-35 at an appropriate level, the new bomber will certainly begin development, and then we will bring the tanker on," Schwartz said.
The Air Force would "do less of other things in order to protect those programs," he said.