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Project on Government Oversight

Defense Secretary Gates Chafes at Joint Strike Fighter Accountability Provision in House Bill

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September 13, 2010

Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposes a key Joint Strike Fighter accountability provision in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 (H.R. 5136).  The provision (Sec. 141), which POGO supports, limits the number of JSF aircraft the Pentagon could purchase next year if the Pentagon does not meet certain JSF testing goals.  Gates' criticizes the section in September 7 letters to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and Ranking Member John McCain, obtained by POGO.  Also, Gates opposes three other JSF-related sections related to funding for a second engine; POGO does not oppose Gates' position on these three.

“Gates has been applying discipline in the Pentagon in various troubled areas,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, “and the Joint Strike Fighter is an area where the hemorrhaging needs to be staunched the most.” 

In the letters, Gates says all four House provisions are “overly restrictive” and “an impediment to the successful fielding of the aircraft.”  His comments echo statements made in a May 27 White House statement of administration policy.   

Follow the links for Gates' September 7 letter and a June 29 letter from Senators McCain and Levin asking Gates to explain his opposition to sec. 141.

Sec. 141 reduces the Pentagon’s purchase to 30 JSF aircraft next year, as opposed to the 42 requested. The reduction could be lifted if certain conditions are met.  Some of the House provision requirements are: the delivery of 11 test aircraft to test locations in 2010; guarantees that JSF manufacturing facilities can build 42 aircraft next year; and that most of the testing goals for this year have been reached.  The Joint Strike Fighter program office itself developed many of the goals cited in Sec. 141.  Sec. 141 also contains restrictions tied to progress with the second engine – Gates called these “particularly onerous.” 

Gates said three other sections in H.R. 5136 that concern the JSF alternative engine “would constrain the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently manage the JSF program.”  One of these sections only funds 75 percent of the amount authorized for the JSF’s development, unless a second engine is funded. 

The House and Senate still need to iron out the differences between their versions of the legislation in conference. 

POGO agrees with Gates that funding for the JSF program should not be held up for the alternate engine.   

However, purchases of JSF aircraft should slow down unless testing goals are met and there is confidence that JSF contractors can actually build the number of aircraft the Pentagon wants in a timely and cost-effective manner.  The House language even offers a waiver to its purchase restriction if Ashton Carter, the under secretary for acquisition, says that problems in the test program this year will not negatively impact the program or test schedule next year. 

“Buying more planes prematurely only adds risk to the $328 billion Joint Strike Fighter program,” said Brian. “Gates needs to avoid repeating the same mistakes that this program has made for years, which have been responsible for the nearly 60 percent increase in the estimated cost of the program even though 400 fewer planes will be bought than originally planned.”

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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