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Trouble-Plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program Appears Too Expensive to Fail

Despite a history punctuated by cost hikes, schedule delays and technological problems, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter appears to be too big — and too important — to fail.

The Pentagon temporarily grounded the stealth fighters after an engine caught fire on a Florida runway last month, marking the latest in a series of public setbacks for a program that had been expected to make its much- anticipated international debut this week at the Farnborough Airshow outside London.

On Tuesday morning, the Pentagon announced a “limited return to flight” for the F-35s, but officials later said the F-35 would not make the trip across the Atlantic for the airshow.

While the fighters are returning to the skies, albeit in a limited capacity, the plane’s problems nonetheless continue to raise concerns that at least some of the United States’ eight international partners on the program may rethink their commitment to the F-35 and make it difficult to attract additional partners. The program’s troubled past has made the F-35, the most expensive program in Pentagon history, a lightning rod for criticism both in the United States and overseas.

But Defense officials and key lawmakers continue to stand by the advanced stealth fighter, which will replace older fighters in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fleet.

“In spite of the problems that people are talking about, like the fire and some of the over budget items and all that, there is no longer a choice,” said James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

When the Pentagon decided in 2009 to stop buying the F-22 Raptor fighter jet after 187 planes, the F-35 became the only game in town.

“When they took the F-22 out, this is the only fifth generation fighter we’re going to have,” Inhofe said. “We can’t have another one.”

The military, Inhofe added, should go “full-bore ahead” with the F-35.

The U.S. military plans to buy 2,457 of the planes, with the vast majority going to the Air Force. The cost of developing and buying the planes comes to roughly $400 billion, but operating and sustaining them adds another $1 trillion to the program’s price tag over the next 55 years.

International partners are expected to buy hundreds of the planes, with the United Kingdom alone on tap for 138 F-35s. Over the past several years, however, several countries have trimmed or delayed their purchases of the aircraft. If that trend continues, the price tag for each plane would almost certainly increase.

Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed his strong support for the F-35 during a speech at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base, the scene of a June 23 jet fire that ultimately led to the grounding of the entire fleet.

“I believe this aircraft is the future of our fighter aircraft for our services,” Hagel said. “This is as big a project, the F-35, as we have in the Department of Defense. We have a lot riding on this aircraft.”

Hagel defended the plane despite its problems, saying he does not know of a single platform the military has ever designed and fielded that has not gone through some growing pains.

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