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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, politics aside, the Pentagon has been struggling to build evermore sophisticated weapons at an affordable cost. And the classic example is an airplane we'll talk about next.

The F-35 is supposed to be cost-effective, a plane so versatile it works for the Air Force, the Navy, the Marines. But it's become the most expensive military procurement program in history.

The plane is now in the sky, and NPR's Larry Abramson has the first of two reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: On a cold fall morning at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Florida, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Lee Kloos watches a fellow pilot prepare an F-35 for launch. Kloos loves the technology, from the advanced helmet that lets him see in the dark, to the stealth technology that lets him hide from radar. Some of that stealth design is built right into the smooth shape of the plane.

LT. COL. LEE KLOOS: When he closes these weapon bay doors, everything is going to clean up really nicely on this jet, whereas compared down there to the F-16, he's hanging external tanks, and of course, if he had weapons, he'd be hanging external weapons all over the aircraft. So, a very clean, slick jet to fly.

ABRAMSON: Weapons and fuel are kept in internal bays, so there are no sharp edges or bumps that will show up on radar. The military says stealth is key to dealing with future threats and to staying ahead of the Chinese and the Russians. For years, pilots like Kloos have relied on the un-stealthy F-16, the workhorse of the fighter fleet. But the F-16 is long in the tooth, and the U.S. has not bought any new copies for years. So the F-35 is supposed to pick up its mission: enforcing no-fly zones or supporting special ops teams.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET ENGINES)

ABRAMSON: The pilot starts the plane's single engine and hits the runway for a training run.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET ENGINES)

ABRAMSON: But despite its sleek profile, the F-35 is loaded down with problems.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: VPS-13, we're going to keep all air space, no birdbaths. And that's it. Anything for me?

ABRAMSON: In a control room, pilots in green jumpsuits check on the weather near Eglin. The military is eager to show off this plane, to show that it's not just a flying money pit. But even though the F-35 is in the air, it still faces years of testing before it can go into battle. Major Matt Johnson explains that his pilots are still working on the instruction manual.

MAJ. MATT JOHNSON: We know how we think the jet should take off, what we've seen from developmental tests. But what we're trying to do is codify that and put it in writing, and write those publications that, in previous jets, were already written by the time you get to training. Well, we're doing that here.

ABRAMSON: Thanks to a strategy known as concurrency, the F-35 is being flown and tested at the same time. Concurrency was supposed to speed up the F-35's development, but the jet is years late. Lockheed has been locked in arguments with the Pentagon over who should pay for the fixes that are needed as test pilots work out the kinks. A big selling point for this plane is that it's supposed to satisfy pilots from the Air Force, the Marines and the Navy. They've all relied on a roster of up to 10 aircraft to land on carriers, do aerial combat and conduct surveillance. Major Adam Levine says for Marine fliers like himself, the F-35 is supposed to replace three different planes.

MAJ. ADAM LEVINE: The F-18 Hornet, the AV-8B Harrier and the Prowler jamming airplane that the Marine Corps currently employs.

ABRAMSON: But to do that, manufacturer Lockheed had to mess with the sleek shape of this plane and add a special feature. Major Levine walks me over to the Marine version, which sports a noticeable bump behind the cockpit. That's the home of a powerful fan.

LEVINE: That fan, in turn, provides the necessary thrust and lift when the aircraft performs the short takeoff and vertical landing.

ABRAMSON: Vertical landings let the jet land like a helicopter and let it take off on short runways - critical functions for the Marines. But that bump also makes the plane less stealthy, and it's added greatly to the cost. The Marine version of the plane is nearly a third more expensive than the Air Force variant. And trying to hide a tailhook for carrier landings inside the Navy version has also been a problem.

LT. COL. TODD LAFORTUNE: (unintelligible) out there.

ABRAMSON: Lieutenant Colonel Todd LaFortune walks away from his plane after a training run. He's still wearing his pressure suit and is a little flushed from his flight. LaFortune is now qualified to be an F-35 instructor. He'll never fly an old F-16 again.

LAFORTUNE: We decided once you start flying the F-35, we're not going to be dual-qualified. So now, I should be done with the F-16 for the rest of my life. That was a sad day, but it's one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life was being selected to come fly this aircraft and then get to actually fly it now. It's pretty neat.

ABRAMSON: That transition is emblematic of what the military is going through. Here at Eglin, they're building everything, from new training facilities to maintenance hangars to prepare for their share of the more than 2,000 planes the U.S. military plans to buy. The Pentagon is wedded to this plane, despite cries from many that the Joint Strike Fighter will break the bank and steal money from the rest of the defense budget. Later today, why some critics think the F-35 must be cancelled. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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