By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top Pentagon officials on Tuesday underscored their support for the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter, saying they would try to protect funding for the most expensive weapons program despite continued budget uncertainty and cost over-runs.
The $396 billion program is already seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over initial cost estimates.
"We'll try to protect F-35," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top arms buyer, told a defense conference. "There's no question about its priority. Despite sequestration, we'll still have a budget that's adequate to support F-35."
Kendall and other military officials spoke out in support of the program as it faces potentially damaging budget cuts that could lead to further delays and cost increases.
Kendall said the F-35 program still required much hard work on technical issues, noting that testing of the new radar-evading fighter was only about one-third complete. But he said the military needed the new fighter jet's next-generation capabilities.
"It is a transforming aircraft. It will give us dominance in the air, probably our most single important conventional warfighting capability for the foreseeable decades," he told a conference hosted by Credit Suisse and consultant Jim McAleese.
A congressional watchdog agency said on Monday that the Pentagon needs to budget $12.6 billion each year through 2037 to finish developing and paying for all the fighters it plans to buy. The Government Accountability Office report put the program's total cost at $400 billion.
Lockheed is building three models of the F-35 for three military branches and eight partner countries that helped fund the plane's development: Britain, Australia, Italy, Turkey, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada. But rising costs, schedule delays and mounting budget pressures have forced some of the potential buyers to rethink their plans.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the overall program would suffer if the Navy scrapped its plans to buy 260 C-model planes that can land on carriers. But he did not rule out a possible reduction in orders.
"We're in ... We need the F-35C; we need its capability," Greenert said at the conference. He said the new plane's capabilities were "tremendous," though he acknowledged it would be costly to integrate the F-35 into the Navy's air wings.
While the Navy was still considering how many F-35s to buy, Greenert said it had no plans to eliminate its total purchase of C-models, since that would increase the cost per plane of the other models and have consequences for other countries interested in buying the C-model.
"If we bought no Cs that would be very detrimental to the overall program because that's numbers," Greenert said, noting that any reduction in orders would raise the cost of the remaining planes to be purchase.
Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, who runs the F-35 program for the Pentagon, told the conference he was focused on making sure the airplane was affordable to buy and operate.
Speaking to reporters, Bogdan said he planned to restructure the Pentagon's F-35 office as part of an overall drive to reduce the program's costs.
"Mark my word: I am reorganizing and I am making personnel changes," Bogdan said. He added that he expected Lockheed, the prime contractor for the program, and Pratt & Whitney, which makes the engine for the single-engine warplane, to streamline their administrative operations as well.
Pratt is a unit of United Technologies Corp. Bogdan said it was imperative to make the aircraft more affordable, or orders would drop off, raising costs further.
Bogdan said he hoped to avoid the kind of "death spiral" that resulted in much smaller orders for the F-22 fighter, also built by Lockheed, and other aircraft.
The F-35 program office said a team of experts was examining an F-35 that had to make an unscheduled landing in Lubbock, Texas, on Monday after a warning light came on in the cockpit. A spokesman said it was not yet clear what triggered the light.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Dan Grebler)