By BEN FREEMAN
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has some explaining to do on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), respectively, the chair and ranking member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. Both those Senators sent a letter to Panetta on December 6, one day after McCain called the JSF "both a scandal and a tragedy" on the Senate floor.
The Senators ask Panetta to personally “ensure the safety and adequacy” of F-35 operational training, according to a letter by the Senators obtained by POGO. The letter also chastises the Air Force for dismissing a warning from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation that the current plan for unmonitored flight training of the F-35 “risks the occurrence of a serious mishap.”
The Air Force and JSF Joint Program Office justified their dismissal of Gilmore’s concerns by arguing that they adequately conducted “risk acceptance and mitigation in the context of planned training scope and limitations, while also considering the seniority of the initial cadre of pilots.”
Dismayed by this response to Gilmore’s concerns, the Senators write that “A viable response must do more than assert that experienced pilots and limited training goals mitigate risk.”
The Senators stressed that it was still unclear if the safety concerns raised by Gilmore would be resolved before operational training begins, and, most importantly, asked for Panetta’s assurance that this was the case. The letter specifically asks Panetta to answer five questions related to training and safety.
Gilmore, Levin, and McCain’s concerns also got major validation this week as well when the Air Force did an about face on whether the F-35 was ready for flight training. As Inside Defense reported on Monday, the Air Force now agrees that there are still “outstanding risks associated with the Joint Strike Fighter flight training” and “there is no pressure to initiate training prematurely.”
Nonetheless, Panetta’s response to these questions will reveal much about his ability to objectively evaluate the agency he commands. Given the F-35’s history of technical problems and cost-overruns, why take more risks by putting the cart before the horse? Panetta has an excellent opportunity to show that he can push back against JSF proponents that would have the plane fly straight into training regardless of cost or safety consequences.
Ben Freeman is POGO’s National Security Fellow.
Photo via Official U.S. Navy Imagery