WASHINGTON - The Navy, in internal Pentagon budget deliberations, has proposed cutting its share of developing the Joint Strike Fighter by $1 billion over five years, a senior defense official confirmed Monday.
The defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Navy proposal - still being debated within the Pentagon - is evidence that the service expects Joint Strike Fighter development to be slowed.
"It's not that they're soft on their support for the JSF," this official said of the Navy. "I don't think they think it's going to come along on the timeline it's supposed to. Therefore, they're trying to better leverage their money."
Two congressional committees voted to delay the program by three to six months last week after the General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress, urged more testing of technologies for the new fighter-bomber.
Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. are competing to be the prime contractor on the Joint Strike Fighter, which is to be used by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and the British armed services.
The companies are preparing prototypes for a "fly-off" to begin this summer. Under current plans, production would start in 2008, and the winner would build about 3,000 planes worth $200 billion or more - the biggest defense contract in history.
The new plane is to replace aging Air Force F-16s and A-10s and Marine Corps Harrier jump jets while giving the Navy a fighter-bomber whose stealth technology would make it virtually invisible to radar. The Marines, whose Harrier force badly needs replacing, are eager to have the Joint Strike Fighter. But Defense Secretary William Cohen and other civilian officials in the Clinton administration have pushed the plane on the Navy and Air Force, several defense experts say.
"Except for the Marine Corps, the Joint Strike Fighter is not the top priority of the services," said Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private group in Washington that studies government spending. "This is just more evidence of that."
The Navy's budget move was first reported Monday by The Wall Street Journal.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., who closely follows the Joint Strike Fighter program, said the Navy proposal was evidence the service is "very soft on JSF. They'd rather spend their money on other things."
"I've talked to many of the senior officers and this is not their top priority, not even close," Mr. Thompson said. "Both the Navy and the Air Force are skeptical that this is the airframe they want for their needs."
The Navy could use money taken from the Joint Strike Fighter to fund an expensive shipbuilding program that includes a new submarine and a new destroyer or for its top fighter plane, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, he noted.
The Air Force's top tactical aircraft priority is the F-22 Raptor, a new air-to-air fighter that Lockheed and Boeing jointly build in Fort Worth, Seattle and Marietta, Ga.
"The Air Force appears to be ready to cut everything that might compete with the F-22," the senior defense official said.
Gen. Michael Ryan, chief of staff of the Air Force, said last year that if Congress cut the F-22, the Air Force would have to "go back and rethink" the Joint Strike Fighter.