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With the proposal to wind down the F-22 program, the American military is now committing to a new multipurpose aircraft. The F-35 will be built to handle just about anything, from dogfights to bombing missions. There have been some problems along the design path. But as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the Pentagon is betting a lot of money that the F-35 will be a world-class tactical jet.

WADE GOODWYN: The F-35 will be the country's most expensive weapons program ever — an estimated $1 trillion. The Air Force, Navy and Marines will use three different versions of the plane and that redundancy will theoretically save money in the long run.

But in a report to Congress yesterday, the Government Accounting Office worried that with only two percent of flight tests completed, the White House's decision to accelerate the F-35 will end up costing taxpayers.

Mike Sullivan is the GAO's Director of Acquisition.

Mr. MIKE SULLIVAN (GAO): The biggest problem will be is they're going to wind up costing a lot more because they're going to find problems when they test them, and those changes are going to have to be cranked back into the design of the aircraft. That's all going to be expensive, and they'll probably get delivered later.

GOODWYN: Sullivan predicts that when it's all said and done, the price of the nearly 2,456 jets built by Lockheed Martin in Forth Worth could approach $140 million for each plane.

So in the midst of a nasty recession and a huge deficit, is this still a good idea? Owen Cote, director of the MIT Securities Studies Program, says yes.

Mr. OWEN COTE (MIT): Basically money solves all problems. They're telling the GAO thanks for your advice, we're going to accelerate the program because we've cancelled F-22 and we want to get to a fifth-generation fighter as quickly as possible.

GOODWYN: For the Marines, the F-35 will be a jump jet, capable of short take-off and vertical landings, able to do close air support for troops in the field. For the Navy it will fly off of aircraft carriers and be used as a strike aircraft. For the Air Force it will be flown off traditional runways and used for tactical bombing and air to air combat. Or change the military service around and the jet's mission as much as desired.

Sullivan says the Obama administration made a smart move to kill the F-22 and bet on the F-35.

Mr. SULLIVAN: People talk about the price, but remember, as you just pointed out, how many different airplanes it's going to replace. I think it's a good jet.

GOODWYN: A plane for a new age of the American battlefield. Now for the hard part: Out of the nearly 2,500 planes planned to be operational by 2015, only two have been completed.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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