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Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the engine fire raises questions about what it will take to get the program back on track. But, like Hagel, Reed said these kinds of stumbling blocks are “not unusual in a very sophisticated development program like this.”
During his trip to Eglin, Hagel sat in the cockpit of an F-35 and spoke to F-35 pilots and maintenance chiefs, who said they have “tremendous confidence” in the fighter.
Following the fire, the Pentagon ordered an investigation to determine the cause, as well as additional inspections of F-35 engines. The Pentagon is still determining the root cause of the engine fire.
Another top Pentagon official told the House Armed Services Committee last week that evidence so far points to an individual failure rather than a larger problem — an assessment that, if correct, could bode well for the plane’s return to service.
“There’s a growing body of evidence this may have been an individual situation, not a systemic one,” Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said.
The program is getting its first post-grounding test on Capitol Hill this week, as Senate appropriators draft the fiscal 2015 Defense appropriations bill.
“I’m hoping this incident is isolated. We’ve invested a lot of money in it,” Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said last week. “It’s the most expensive weapons system in history. By now, we were hoping we would be further along.”
On Tuesday, Durbin’s subcommittee approved the bill, which matches the Pentagon’s request for 34 F-35s next year. The full appropriations committee will consider the bill on Thursday.
By comparison, the House-passed fiscal 2015 Defense appropriations bill (HR 4870) includes $5.8 billion to buy 38 F-35s next year, which is four more aircraft than the Pentagon requested.
Durbin has been cautious about the international fighter program.
Shortly after taking over the gavel of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, he held a hearing specifically focused on the F-35, raising concerns about the cost of the program and its track record.
“The Joint Strike Fighter program has had more than its share of problems over the last decade and, quite frankly, its history reads like a textbook on how not to run a major acquisition effort,” Durbin said at the June 19, 2013, hearing.