SECAF nominee walks a tightrope on F-35 procurement plans

WASHINGTON — The F-35 joint strike fighter loomed like a ghost over the May 25 confirmation hearing of President Joe Biden’s pick for Air Force secretary, who famously called the program a case of “acquisition malpractice.”

If confirmed, Frank Kendall — who oversaw the program during the Obama administration as the Defense Department’s acquisition executive — will become the Air Force’s top civilian at a time when the service grapples with the decision of how many F-35 aircraft to buy, both in the near term and over the lifespan of the program.

But despite repeated questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kendall said little to tip his hand on how he might further shape the program.

“The F-35 is the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world and will be so for quite some time. It’s a complex, expensive weapon, unfortunately. But it is a dominant weapon when it goes up against earlier generation aircraft,” Kendall told lawmakers when asked on his views on the aircraft.

“But the concern I have is that the complaints still come,” said Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, SASC’s top Republican.

The Air Force is evaluating its tactical aviation fleet, including whether to go through with a planned buy of 1,763 F-35As. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown has said that the service may seek out a low-cost, clean-sheet multirole fighter to replace its oldest F-16s — one of the platforms originally slated to be succeeded by the F-35.

Meanwhile, CNN reported earlier this month that Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official during the Trump administration, had sought to cut the Air Force’s F-35 buy to about 800 jets, further inciting worries about the program’s future.

During the hearing, Inhofe spoke about the Air Force’s 2009 decision to curb F-22 procurement from 750 to 187 aircraft. That cut has contributed to the F-22′s high operations and sustainment costs, which are endemic to small aircraft fleets.

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