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​An F-35A taxies from the runway onto the flightline after successfully completing a sortie at Luke AFB, Ariz., Dec. 14, 2015. Air Force photo by A1C Ridge Shan.

​In a rare display of approval for a weapons system program, Government Accountability Office acquisition expert Michael Sullivan said the F-35 program has “managed costs very well since 2012,” when the program was restructured. However, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, it faces “significant challenges ahead” getting funded, because it will compete with the Air Force’s new bomber, tanker, trainer, and ICBM programs, a new Navy submarine, and other Pentagon priorities. The F-35 as now structured “will cost $13 billion a year for the next 22 years, until all planned production is complete in 2040,” Sullivan said. That figure includes the next, “Block IV” phase of F-35, which comprises big improvements beyond the 3F baseline version. The GAO recently recommended Block IV be broken out as major defense acquisition program (MDAP) in its own right due to its cost and also “for transparency and accountability,” Sullivan said. However, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall, also at the hearing, begged Congress not to do it. “If we add the label” of a MDAP to the Block IV effort, Kendall said, “it just brings more bureaucracy and cost.” Sullivan said GAO doesn’t want to add bureaucracy either, but noted that a similar approach on the F-22 was accompanied by cost growth “from $2 billion … [to] $11 billion … with no accountability because it’s in the baseline” program.