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Cornyn presses top Pentagon nominee on F-35 program

The Pentagon needs the Senate to confirm Ashton Carter as its number two official, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is making it clear that Carter’s handling of the Pentagon’s largest weapons program, the F-35 fighter, will be a major focus of his confirmation process. Carter is currently serving as the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions. ...

The Pentagon needs the Senate to confirm Ashton Carter as its number two official, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is making it clear that Carter’s handling of the Pentagon’s largest weapons program, the F-35 fighter, will be a major focus of his confirmation process.

Carter is currently serving as the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions. A majority of the production for the F-35 takes place in Cornyn’s home state of Texas.

The F-35 fighter program is not only the largest acquisitions program in the history of the U.S. military, it is also the Pentagon program most plagued by cost overruns and delays. As the military’s only new fighter program following the closing of the F-22 line, the United States and some allied militaries are depending on the F-35. Cornyn is worried that the Pentagon is taking money from F-35 program to pay for other items in the budget.

"As the Senate prepares to consider your nomination [to become deputy secretary of Defense], I write to express disappointment with your apparent lack of commitment to the success of the largest DOD major acquisition program in our nation’s history, the F-35 Lightening II," Cornyn wrote in a letter today to Carter, obtained by The Cable.

Cornyn asked for Carter’s written responses on five issues prior to his confirmation hearing. And he pretty clearly has a list of answers that he wants to hear: The Texas senator wants Carter to state for the record that the F-35 program is imperative for the military. He wants Carter to promise not to take money from the F-35 program to buy older model fighters, as was done last year, when the Pentagon took $12 billion from the F-35 production budget and spent $8 billion of that on F-18 fighters.

Cornyn also wants Carter’s assurance that the current F-35 budget is sufficient to make the program work. He wants Carter to promise not to slow F-35 production to save money and then give that money to other programs. Lastly, Cornyn wants Carter to step up engagement with allies who might want to buy the F-35 from the United States. 

"I am concerned that the DOD’s failure to sufficiently defend and advocate for the F-35 program has enabled and even invited unwarranted criticisms from many corners, including calls for partial or complete cancellation of the program," Cornyn wrote. "It is my hope that, as Deputy Secretary of Defense, you would be a champion of the F-35 program, using your voice to remind Congress that this weapon system is one our nation cannot do without. I strongly encourage you to step up your defense of this key program."   

This is only one of Cornyn’s two battles with the administration over fighter planes. Last month, he successfully pushed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to promise a decision on selling new, upgraded F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. Taipei has appealed to the United States for 66 new F-16s. Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Clinton gave in. Clinton agreed to give an answer one way or the other by Oct. 1.

Several reports have suggested that the administration’s answer to Taiwan will be no, and that the White House will instead offer the Taiwanese upgrades for their existing fleet of F-16s. On a conference call Tuesday, Cornyn said if that happens, he will push for the sale through the defense authorization bill.

"Congress has traditionally delegated this authority to the president, but it can pass legislation allowing this sale to take place," Cornyn said on the conference call. Congressional support for the sale is high, but ultimately the administration will make the decision on the sale of the F-16s, which are also built in Cornyn’s home state of Texas.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin