LEXINGTON PARK, Md. — The Marine version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, already more than a decade in the making, was facing a crucial question: Could the jet, which can soar well past the speed of sound, land at sea like a helicopter?
On an October day last year, with Lt. Col. Fred Schenk at the controls, the plane glided toward a ship off the Atlantic coast and then, its engine rotating straight down, descended gently to the deck at 7 feet a second.
There were cheers from the ship's crew members, who “were all shaking my hands and smiling," Schenk recalled recently.
The smooth landing helped save that model and breathed new life into the F-35 program, the most expensive weapons system in military history. But while Pentagon officials say the program is making progress, it begins its 12th year in development years behind schedule, troubled with technological flaws and facing concerns about its relatively short flight range as possible threats grow from Asia.
With a price tag potentially in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the jet is likely to become a target for budget cutters. Reining in military spending is on the table as President Barack Obama and Republican leaders in Congress look for ways to avert a fiscal crisis. But no matter what kind of deal is reached, military analysts expect the Pentagon budget to decline over the next decade as the war in Afghanistan ends and the military is required to do its part to reduce the federal debt.
Behind the scenes, the Pentagon and the F-35's main contractor, Lockheed Martin, are engaged in a conflict of their own over the costs.
The relationship “is the worst I've ever seen, and I've been in some bad ones," Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan of the Air Force, a top program official, said in September.
The F-35 was conceived as the Pentagon's silver bullet in the sky — a state-of-the art aircraft that could be adapted to three branches of the military, with advances that would easily overcome the defenses of most adversaries. The radar-evading jets would not only dodge sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles but also give pilots a better picture of enemy threats.
But the aircraft instead illustrates how the Pentagon can let huge and complex programs veer out of control and then have a hard time reining them in. The program nearly doubled in cost as Lockheed and the military's own bureaucracy failed to deliver on the most basic promise of a three-in-one jet that would save taxpayers money and be served up speedily.
Lockheed has delivered 41 planes so far for testing and initial training, and Pentagon leaders are slowing purchases of the F-35 to fix the latest technical problems and reduce the immediate costs. A helmet for pilots that projects targeting data onto its visor is too jittery to count on. The tail-hook on the Navy jet has had trouble catching the arresting cable, meaning the planes cannot yet land on carriers.
And writing and testing the millions of lines of software needed by the jets is so daunting that Bogdan said, “It scares the heck out of me."
The jets would cost taxpayers $396 billion, including research and development, if the Pentagon sticks to its plan to build 2,443 by the late 2030s. That would be nearly four times as much as any other weapons system and two-thirds of the $587 billion the United States has spent on the war in Afghanistan. The military is also trying to figure out how to reduce the long-term costs of operating the planes, now projected at $1.1 trillion.
For years, the problems with the F-35 raised few red flags, as money flowed freely after the 2001 terror attacks and enthusiasm for a three-in-one jet blinded officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations and in Congress to its overly ambitious design. Now, unless the Pentagon can substantially reduce the price of each plane, analysts say, it may be lucky to buy 1,200 to 1,800.
Robert Stevens, the chief executive of Lockheed Martin, said company officials were “working as aggressively as we can" to fix the problems and cut costs.
Vice Adm. David Venlet, who now runs the program at the Pentagon, said he was confident that “good old-fashioned engineering is going to lick" the flaws. But he declined to predict how many planes would be purchased.
The roots of the problems go back to the mid-1990s, when military officials pitched the F-35 as simple and affordable, with the three versions sharing 70 to 80 percent of their parts. The planes would be versatile, capable of fighting other planes but focused mainly on attacking ground targets.
Almost immediately, the project proved to be incredibly complicated. Lockheed's initial designs were late and had to be redone, delaying the manufacture of parts for the test models. While most military programs start building before all the testing is done, the Pentagon took that to an extreme, starting production of the F-35s in 2007, before flight tests had even begun.
Frank Kendall, who became the Pentagon's top weapons buyer in May, has said that diving into production so soon amounted to “acquisition malpractice."