Floor Statements

Washington, D.C. ­– U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered the following opening statement today at a hearing on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program:

“This Committee meets today to consider the status of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program as we review the Fiscal Year 2017 defense budget request. I welcome our witnesses:

  • “Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall;
  • “Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr. Michael Gilmore;
  • “Program Executive Officer for the F-35, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan; and
  • “Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the Government Accountability Office, Michael Sullivan. 

“The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is the largest and most expensive acquisition program in the Department of Defense’s history. The full capabilities this aircraft will eventually provide are critical to America’s national security, our ability to deter our potential adversaries around the globe, and if necessary, respond with overwhelming force to any future conflicts that may require military intervention.

“But at the same time, the F-35 program’s record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule, and performance. And it’s a textbook example of why this Committee has placed such a high priority on reforming the broken defense acquisition system.

“The F-35’s schedule for development has now stretched to more than 15 years. Costs have more than doubled from original estimates. Aircraft deliveries amount to no more than a mere trickle relative to the original promises of the program. The original F-35 delivery schedule promised 1,013 F-35s of all variants would be delivered by the end of fiscal year 2016. In reality, we will have 179.  Because the Air Force, Marines, and Navy were all counting on the F-35s that never appeared, combat aircraft and strike fighter capacity shortfalls in all three services have reached critical levels, severely impacting readiness, and ultimately limiting the Department’s ability to meet the requirements of the defense strategy.

“In the Department’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, dozens more aircraft are being deferred from the Future Years Defense Plan, resulting in a situation where the last F-35A will be delivered in 2040.  I cannot fathom how this strategy makes any sense – purchasing combat aircraft with a 40-year old design in light of all the testimony this committee has received about how our potential adversaries are rapidly catching up with, and in some cases matching, America’s military technological advantages.

“Those F-35 aircraft being delivered are not being delivered as promised. They have problems with maintenance diagnostic software, radar instabilities, sensor fusion shortfalls, fuel system problems, structural cracks from service life testing, engine reliability deficits, limitations on the crew escape system that cause pilot weight restrictions, and potential cyber vulnerabilities. This list is as troubling as it is long.

“At long last, we are approaching the end of the long nightmare known as ‘concurrency’ – the ill-advised simultaneous development, testing, and production of a complex and technologically challenging weapons system that the Department estimates will end up costing the American taxpayers $1.8 billion. But many questions remain, such as:

  • “the total number of these aircraft the Nation should buy, or can even afford;
  • “the costs of future upgrades to keep these aircraft relevant in the face of an ever-evolving threat; and
  • “the management and administration of a so-called ‘joint’ program that General Bogdan himself has admitted consists of aircraft that have only 20 to 25% commonality across the three variants, as compared to the original goal of 70 to 90%. 

“The F-35A, F-35B, and F-35C are essentially three distinct aircraft, with significantly different missions and capability requirements. The illusion of jointness perpetuated by the structure of the F-35 Joint Program stifles the proper alignment of responsibility and accountability this program so desperately needs.

“There are also questions as to when the System Development and Demonstration phase, or SDD, will actually be completed so that initial operational test and evaluation can begin.  Originally scheduled to conclude in 2017, we have every indication that schedule pressures will likely extend SDD well into fiscal year 2018. I am very concerned the Department may attempt to take shortcuts by deferring mission capability content into later block upgrades, and by doing so, shortchange the warfighter once again by delaying necessary capabilities. 

“The F-35 was designed to replace multiple aircraft of all three Services – the A-10, F-16, F-18, and the Harrier. That is why the operational testing and evaluation must be of such high fidelity. There can be no question in the minds of the American people that their gigantic investment in this program will pay off with greatly improved capabilities that far surpass the mission capabilities of all these individual combat aircraft. The Congress will not likely allow any more of these legacy aircraft to be retired from service until there is no doubt the F-35 can adequately replace them.

“Nor is the Congress likely to entertain a ‘block buy’ or other multi-year procurement schemes until the initial operational test and evaluation is completed, and a positive milestone decision is made to commence full rate production, both of which I understand are scheduled to occur in fiscal year 2019.

“The Department appears to be considering managing the F-35 Follow-on Modernization, which is estimated to cost over $8 billion for the first block upgrade, within the overall F-35 program. This is incredible given the Department’s dismal track record on these upgrade programs, as the F-22A modernization and upgrade debacle showed. I have seen no evidence that DOD’s processes have improved to a level that would remove the need for a separate major defense acquisition program that would enable close scrutiny by Congress.  Moreover, I expect the Department to use fixed price contracts for the F-35 modernization effort in order to protect taxpayers. 

“Despite this program’s many stumbles, there are some positive signs for the F-35. The Marines declared initial operational capability, or IOC, last July in Yuma, Arizona, and are preparing for their first F-35B overseas deployment next year.  Air Force personnel at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, who fly and maintain the aircraft, are preparing for Air Force IOC this fall. They report that the latest lots of F-35As are flying very well, with a significant jump in reliability and warfighting capability as compared to earlier aircraft.  General Bogdan has steadily pushed down aircraft procurement unit costs, reliability metrics are on the rise, and each lot of aircraft deliveries possess increasingly effective warfighting capabilities.

“All of this is a testament to hard work of military and civilian personnel inside this program today. They are doing their best to overcome misguided decisions taken long ago, and they are having success in important areas. However, there is a lot of development left to complete in this program, and with it comes the potential for more problems, schedule delays, and increased costs. This committee will remain steadfast in its oversight responsibilities to ensure our warfighters get the capabilities they need on time and at reasonable cost.”