An F-35B flies over Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in March. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — A key House panel on Wednesday gave a needed endorsement to the embattled F-35 fighter program, killing a measure that would have slapped restrictions on its budget.
During a House Armed Services Committee mark up of its 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., offered an amendment that would have temporarily locked the program’s funding.
The former Army helicopter pilot proposed prohibiting the Air Force and Navy departments from buying and F-35s or F-135 engines. The freeze only would have been lifted after the Pentagon certified data about key portions of the program.
Specifically, Duckworth’s amendment sought Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s certification that all testing and other efforts to deal with the fighter’s software is complete.
It also would have frozen procurement dollars until Hagel had formally assured Congress that the fighter’s complex helmet avionics problems have been fixed. The amendment pointed to the helmet system’s “green glow, distributed aperture system latency, symbology jitter, night-vision acuity, and helmet alignment [problems].”
Duckworth’s amendment also would have required Hagel’s certification that all low-rate initial production contracts for the six and seventh batches of the fighter jets “have been definitized.”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the HASC’s tactical air and land forces subcommittee, spoke out against the Duckworth amendment moments before a recorded vote.
Turner charged it would have triggered another one-year delay and further driven up costs. He also warned passage of the measure “would send a bad signal to our partner nations.”
The US is partnering with over a dozen other nations on the fifth-generation fighter.
Turner pointed to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that trumpeted recent progress on the F-35 program. Turner said the report is evidence “the F-35 program is now moving in the right direction.”
But Rep. Loretta Sanchez, R-Calif., the subcommittee’s ranking member, voiced support for Duckworth’s proposal.
She said the F-35 program is “70 percent over cost” and nearly a decade behind its original schedule.
The fighter program has been plagued for years by technical problems, testing setbacks and big cost spikes.
Duckworth’s amendment would “put pressure on Lockheed Martin,” the program’s prime contractor, Sanchez argued. The amendment “is about how do we continue to ensure the contractors are … doing it in a way that is successful.”
Duckworth called the amendment “a good-government issue.”
Moments after she cast the measure in that light, the committee resoundingly killed it. Fifty-one members voted against it, with just 10 voting in favor.