Panetta: F-35 could be on chopping block

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned the U.S. Congress that the Pentagon may be forced to cancel its planned purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter if a congressional “super committee” fails to reach a budget deal, thus triggering automatic deep cuts in government spending (Bill Curry, “Washington could scrap its F-35 jet purchase,” Globe and Mail, 15 November 2011):

The bi-partisan committee – officially called the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (JSCDR) – must reach a deal by next Wednesday. Should they fail, across the board cuts to government spending, described as “sequestration,” would kick in almost immediately.

In letters to Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Mr. Panetta outlines what these cuts could look like.

“If the JSCDR fails to meet its targets and sequestration is triggered, [the Department of Defense] would face huge cuts in its budgets,” Mr. Panetta writes in a letter dated Nov. 14.

“Decisions related to major programs could include: Terminate Joint Strike Fighter; minimal life extensions and upgrades to existing forces,” the letter states, describing this measure as a potential savings of $80-billion U.S.

A U.S. decision to cancel F-35 purchases would effectively doom the aircraft, forcing the Harper government to abandon its own plan to purchase the fighter.

Outright cancellation of the aircraft is probably unlikely, however, despite Panetta’s warning, even if the Congress does fail to prevent “sequestration”. The politics of procurement make it almost impossible to kill a major U.S. weapons system once it has entered production. More probable is that the U.S. would reduce the size of its eventual F-35 purchase, perhaps quite significantly, and extend the period over which it takes place.

Both changes would have the effect of raising the cost of Canada’s F-35 purchase plans, without, unfortunately, providing the easy antidote to government folly that cancellation would provide.

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