MSgt John Nimmo Sr. photo via Wiki Commons
U.S. Air Force pilot navigates an F-35A Lightning II aircraft assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing off the coast of Florida May 16, 2013. (MSgt John Nimmo Sr. photo via Wiki Commons)

WASHINGTON – As the Trump administration prepares to release its Fiscal 2020 budget this month, U.S. Rep. John Larson is pushing against rumored plans by the Pentagon to cut back on procurement of F-35 fighters powered by Pratt & Whitney engines.

Larson, who co-chairs the F-35 Caucus, sent a letter to President Trump requesting that they not abandon a long-standing strategy to procure “an all 5th generation aircraft fighter fleet” for the Air Force and Marines by instead investing in upgrading F-15 fighters.

“This proposal to procure ‘new’ F-15s would result in nearly one-third of the future fighter fleet not capable of fighting high end conflicts,” he wrote along with three fellow co-chairs from Alabama, Texas, and Ohio.

The letter comes a day after the Connecticut delegation sent a letter to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan urging the Pentagon to include “full funding” for the F-35 program to “ensure that our warfighters have the most capable, lethal, and stealth fighter fleet.”

The delegation noted in the letter that all three variants of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft are powered by F135 engines manufactured at Pratt & Whitney’s facilities in East Hartford and Middletown. More than 11,000 jobs in Connecticut are directly or indirectly related to the F-35 program.

Last June, the US Department of Defense awarded Pratt & Whitney a $2 billion contract to supply F135 turbofan engines for the Lot 11 order of Lockheed Martin F-35s. The contract would cover the delivery of 135 engines plus program management, engineering and production support, spare modules and spare parts. The company had previously delivered 375 F135 engines.

Earlier this week, Bloomberg cited Defense Department sources in reporting that the upcoming budget request would reduce from 84 to 78 the number of F-35 jets it would purchase.

Larson is concerned the Pentagon is also planning to purchase F-15X fighters — an investment that he believes could have an impact on future F-35 purchases.

“The fact that we are even discussing buying F-15 aircraft that the services have not procured for some 18 years is troubling in and of itself, but to think that the DoD would consider buying these aircraft with no regard to the acquisition process is even more troubling,” Larson wrote the president.

The F-35 Caucus — which is also co-chaired by Reps. Martha Roby of Alabama, Marc Veasey of Texas, and Michael Turner of Ohio — is also frustrated that the Pentagon “flat-lines F-35 production investments, defers investments in readiness, and underfunds modernization for this critical fleet” despite a stated need for 2,456 F-35 aircraft.

The F-35 fighter program has been criticized for its high cost. A year ago, Trump’s budget proposal also sought to reduce its scope only to have Congress step in to boost investments. Construction of the F-35 fighter is spread across 350 House districts, according to the Houston Chronicle. Congress approved a $667 billion defense spending bill for fiscal 2019 that included funding for 16 more F-35 aircraft than the Pentagon had requested.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office issued a policy report last year that considered halting further production of the F-35 and instead purchasing advanced versions of older non-stealthy fighter aircraft for an estimated savings of about $13 billion from 2020 through 2028.

“An advantage of this option is that it would reduce the cost of replacing DoD’s older fighter aircraft while still providing new F-16s and F/A-18s with improved capabilities — including modern radar, precision weapons, and digital communications — that would be able to defeat most of the threats that the United States is likely to face in the coming years,” CBO wrote.

Conversely, having a force composed of a mix of stealthy and non-stealthy aircraft “would be less flexible against advanced enemy air defense systems. If the United States was unable to neutralize such defenses early in a conflict, then the use of F-16s and F/A-18s might be limited, effectively reducing the number of fighters that the United States would have at its disposal.”