The F-35 Fighter: Keep it or Cut It?

Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter is unveiled, Fort Worth, Texas, photo
AP Graphics Bank

With so much at stake, over the days and weeks ahead the CBS Evening News will be taking a closer look at the Tough Choicesthe country will be facing to reduce the debt and deficit.

The Pentagon's current budget of $715 billion is a very big target for budget cutters. The money goes to everything from personnel to thousands of weapons systems - including the newest in the line of stealth fighters, the F-35 fighter plane.

CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter presents some tough choices for the man who runs the Pentagon.

(Scroll down to vote your opinion on the F-35's fate.)

The Challenge:
The challenge is to build 2,500 radar-evading stealth fighters - at $382 billion the country's single most expensive weapons program - without breaking the pentagon bank.

"We obviously have a huge investment in this aircraft," Defense Secretary Gates said on Aug. 31, 2009. "It is the heart of the future of tactical combat aviation for our services, so the importance of this program can hardly be overstated."

CBS Evening News Series: "Tough Choices"

The Air Force, Navy and Marines are all counting on the F-35. But it is already four years behind schedule and more than 50 percent over budget, a fact that prompted Gates to fire the program manager.

"Progress and performance on the F-35 over the past two years has not been what it should be," Gates said in February of this year.

It's a tough choice," said Winslow T. Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information. "He banks the ranch on the F-35 and it failed him."

The Choice:
The choice suggested by the Deficit Reduction Commission is to kill the short take-off and landing version of the F-35 being built for the Marine Corps, saving an estimated $17.6 billion between now and 2015. Then, cut the number of F-35s for the Air Force and Navy in half, saving $9.5 billion.

"Doing that would save $27.1 billion over five years, but it would also leave the services having to depend on current-generation fighters. Not stealthy, these current fighters are becoming increasingly vulnerable to modern air defenses. Buying fewer F-35s would also increase the cost of each airplane.

"If you reduce the buy-down to a few hundred for the Air Force and a few hundred for the Navy," Wheeler said, "we're going to be paying well in excess of $250 million per copy for this airplane."

The F-35 is too big to fail, but without making some tough choices it is also too expensive to afford.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.