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Pentagon: You know what's cool? A trillion-dollar fighter

Air Force has given clearance for its version of the Joint Strike Fighter to begin tests--a major milestone. The program could cost a trillion dollars over the next 50 years.

Three F-35As fly during a test flight. The Joint Strike Fighter program could cost a trillion dollars over 50 years.
F-35 Lightning II Program

The U.S. Air Force yesterday gave the go ahead to begin "introductory" flight tests of its version of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, a major step forward for the trillion-dollar program that, Wired reports, is expected to succeed nearly all of the Pentagon's tactical jets over the next three decades.

If you think maybe you read that number wrong, let me repeat: a trillion dollars. According to Reuters, the F-35 program is seen as a fleet of 2,443 jets over the next 50 years, a flying armada that is expected to cost $1 trillion over the half century.

To be sure, the Pentagon knows that's a scary number--especially in these days of ballooning deficits and giant military budgets--and Reuters says that the military is working to figure out how to cut some of the fat off that trillion-dollar figure.

"Lieutenant General Terry Robling, deputy Marine Corps commandant for aviation, said top defense officials agreed last week to continue low-rate production of the new radar-evading warplane built by Lockheed Martin...while keeping a close eye on the cost of maintaining and operating the new jets," Reuters wrote. It added that Robling said, "Everybody was on board with...the program....We understand the costs are high. We understand that we need to do something, we need to make decisions down the road."

But now, at least, the F-35 will be getting off the ground, albeit after months of delays. Tests will begin at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. "Flying the Air Force variant of the strike fighter will increase pilot and maintainer familiarity with the aircraft, exercise the logistics infrastructure, and continue to develop aircraft maturity," according to a press release on the Air Force Web site.

Clearly, the Pentagon is going to have to work hard if it wants the Joint Strike Fighter to live up to one of its chief selling points, its affordability.

The program "is the Department of Defense's focal point for defining affordable next generation strike aircraft weapon systems for the Navy, Air Force, Marines, and our allies," the JSF's official Web site reads. "The F-35 will bring cutting-edge technologies to the battlespace of the future. The JSF's advanced airframe, autonomic logistics, avionics, propulsion systems, stealth, and firepower will ensure that the F-35 is the most affordable, lethal, supportable and survivable aircraft ever to be used by so many warfighters across the globe."

All of that may be true, but at a trillion dollars--even over five decades--it's going to be hard for the Defense Department to make the "affordability" case. Still, for a program that has had more than its share of delays, it's an important step that the Air Force certified its version of the fighter for tests. Now let's see if the military can find a way to cut the program's costs and get it into the 12-figure range. Thirteen figures is just too much.