Nightly News   |  July 14, 2013

Fighter jet costing US billions

The F-35 joint strike fighter was once seen as an affordable aircraft that could do it all, but it is costing the Pentagon billions and some say the jet isn’t worth the cost. NBC’s Lisa Myers reports.

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>>> we're back with our series the fleecing of america, tracking waste, fraud and abuse in washington. despite deep across the board government budget cuts earlier this year the pentagon's largest acquisition program ever, the f-35 joint strike fighter , has come through the budget process unscathed, despite delays and big cost overruns , outraging critics. we get more from our senior investigative correspondent lisa myers .

>> reporter: the f-35 strike fighter was conceived as an affordable aircraft that could do everything. air-to- air combat , attack deep into enemy territory, hover up and down and side to side, even elevate and take off without a runway but today the program is seven years behind schedule, has almost doubled in cost and become the most expensive weapons program in history. price tag? a staggering $400 billion. one long time critic calls it the jet that ate the pentagon.

>> the airplane is a disaster for our military forces . it's unaffordable and it's a gigantic disappointment in terms of performance.

>> reporter: but test pilots like lieutenant colonel matthew kelly give the plane high marks.

>> it is the most advanced fighter in the world today.

>> reporter: what is so different about what you can do in this plane?

>> the versatility is really what makes this airplane stand out.

>> reporter: earlier this year the general in charge of the f-35 program publicly criticized companies building the planes for trying to "squeeze every last nickel out of taxpayers." but the companies and senior defense officials now report the first real progress in controlling costs, claiming costs actually declined 1% in the last year. still the planes now cost a staggering $120 million each. some believe the military's contracting system and politics have created a program that has become too big to kill or even cut back. at stake, 1 3,000 jobs spread amongst suppliers in 45 states. that adds up to 90 senators with a stake in the program. the pentagon says what's most important is that the f-35 will ensure continued u.s. air superiority.

>> the joint strike fighter is designed and developed to be the most capable combat aircraft in the world, not just the near-term, not just this decade but for the foreseeable future.

>> reporter: still the jury is out over whether the plane will perform as promised, and justify the high price to taxpayers. lisa myers , nbc news, washington.