Fighter jet
Fighter jet. Photo by Reuters
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Senior members of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee last week instructed the Pentagon to come up with alternatives to the jet fighter of the future, the F-35, with the project facing massive cost overruns.

The plane has been selected as the future of the Israel Air Force, and for now there are no plans for an alternative if the American project is shelved.

U.S. Defense Department officials presented the latest data last Thursday to the senate committee on the F-35s test flights and costs.

The plane, with stealth capabilities, is slated to replace an entire generation of jet fighters in the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

But after hearing the data, committee chairman Senator Carl Levin and committee member Senator John McCain said it seemed time to consider alternatives.

The remarks at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, a forum that has historically supported military spending, seems to be the most serious threat the F-35 has faced so far.

"We cannot sacrifice other important acquisitions in the Department of Defense investment portfolio to pay for this capability," Levin said.

The sense in Washington is that after years in which there was strong political backing for the American defense industries' banner project, senior politicians are having to scale back support in the face of a mounting budget deficit.

Last November, the bi-partisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform called for a complete halt in the purchase of one model of the F-35, slated for operation on aircraft carriers, and to halve the purchase of the rest of the models.

At the moment, a purchase of 2,443 planes is planned for the U.S. Air Force, the Navy and the Marines, with foreign countries, including Israel, purchasing another approximately 600 jets.

However, some of these countries are already cutting back on their orders. The cost of one F-35 was planned to have been $69 million, but according to the Pentagon's calculation, the cost has now risen to $103 million and according to Government Accountability Office calculations from last year, it could climb to $112 million.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions Ashton Carter told the Senate panel that the costs are "unacceptable," but pledged to find ways to reduce them.

Some of the cost of the aircraft, manufactured by Lockheed-Martin, stems from significant delays in the test program, in integrating its advanced systems and in a structural problem discovered during testing.

The planes are planned to begin entering into service in the U.S. Air Force in 2013, but it is now believed that only in 2015 will the plane's final software package be fully integrated and only in 2016 will the "Block 3" series, with full technological capabilities, be ready for operational flights.

Israel's Defense Ministry has so far ordered 20 F-35s, but the Israel Air Force has plans to outfit three of its operational squadrons with the aircraft, a total of between 60 and 75 planes.

The Israel Defense Forces is now concerned over the expected delay in delivery of the planes. A senior member of the IDF General Staff raised the possibility that to release older planes from service, the IAF lease from the Americans a squadron of used F-15s. However, in an interview with Haaretz two weeks ago, Defense Ministry Director General Udi Shani rejected the idea.

"On the last visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Israel a month ago, we were told that the delay would be less than what we had thought," he said.

Shani said the delay could allow Israel to outfit the planes with its own systems. "I am in favor of getting a plane with ... as many systems as possible made in Israel ... According to the original schedule we were told there was no time for that. We have teams in the United States now and after the holiday we'll hear their conclusions and I imagine dialogue will start with the Americans over a new schedule and changes."