F-35 fighter jet program 'plagued' by troubles, U.S. senator tells Pentagon

By Bryan Pietsch

WASHINGTON, Aug 1 (Reuters) - U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley asked newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday about cost overruns and technical issues that have "plagued" the Pentagon's high-priced F-35 fighter jet program.

The Department of Defense failed to keep adequate records on the program's costs and installed parts that were not ready for use, according to reports from the Pentagon's inspector general in March and June.

These shortfalls, Grassley said in a letter to Esper, have resulted in "financial waste and further delays to the mission readiness" of the plane and have "potentially jeopardized the lives" of pilots who fly the F-35.

The Pentagon's Joint Program Office, which manages the F-35 program, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Lockheed Martin Corp, the lead contractor for the program, said in a statement that it "looks forward to partnering with" the Joint Program Office as the Pentagon adjusts procedures to address the reports.

Lockheed also said it manages all government property records in accordance with its contracts.

The Lockheed parts installed by the Pentagon were not ready for installation because they lacked electronic records, the inspector general said in June. Defense Department employees instead turned to keeping manual records, the June report said.

Installing the parts inflated the flying time of "mission-ready" planes, and in turn inflated the incentive fees paid to Lockheed by the Defense Department for mission-ready flying hours, the June report said.

The Joint Program Office knew about the issue, but "did not take adequate steps" to resolve it, Grassley said, citing the June report.

An earlier report in March found the Pentagon "does not know the actual value" of government-purchased F-35 property because it failed to keep an independent record, leaving Lockheed and its subcontractor with the only record of the property, which Lockheed valued at $2.1 billion.

The Department of Defense has no mechanism to verify Lockheed's record, the March report said.

As long as these issues remain, they will "continue hemorrhaging money" from the program and threaten the planes' readiness and safety, Grassley noted. (Reporting by Bryan Pietsch, editing by G Crosse)