Nation & World

Texas Sen. Cornyn to approve Ashton Carter for Pentagon post

Sen. John Cornyn says he will vote to approve the nomination of a top Pentagon official whom he criticized just three weeks ago for not supporting the F-35 joint strike fighter strongly enough.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Cornyn briefly praised Ashton Carter and said he would vote for his confirmation as deputy secretary of defense.

Cornyn's remarks came after several of his colleagues, notably Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were extremely critical of the F-35 program and pressed Carter on the importance of controlling "intolerable cost overruns."

On Aug. 24, Cornyn wrote a letter to Carter "to express disappointment with your apparent lack of commitment to the success" of the F-35 and to urge "you to step up your defense of this key program."

Cornyn was also critical of the Pentagon buying more Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets rather than spending the money on the F-35.

As the Pentagon's head of weapons acquisition, Carter has had to restructure and rebudget the program twice in two years to compensate for delays and cost increases as Lockheed Martin struggled to get airplanes built and flying.

So what changed in the last three weeks?

"Dr. Carter assured me that the F-35 will form the backbone of U.S. air combat for generations to come, and I applaud him for improving the execution of this critical program," Cornyn said in a statement issued after the hearing.

Carter wrote a letter to Cornyn in which he largely reiterated his past comments and official Pentagon policy on the F-35. Carter said that there are "no alternatives" to the F-35 as the nation's principal future warplane and that his "focus is on managing the cost and making decisions now that will affect affordability in the future."

The twin specters of soaring weapons costs, with the F-35 as the leading culprit, and likely defense budget cuts hang over Carter's confirmation hearing.

He assured the senators that his primary focus, after getting needed weapons and supplies to troops in the field, will be curtailing costs.

Those threats were manifested when a separate Senate panel, the defense appropriations subcommittee, voted to cut $26 billion from the Pentagon's $656.8 billion budget request for 2012, including trimming $695 million from the F-35 program.

The subcommittee action is one step in the budget process that will unfold in coming weeks as Congress cuts spending to meet deficit reduction targets mandated last month.

Separately on Monday, Cornyn and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced legislation that would require the Obama administration to allow Lockheed Martin to sell F-16s to Taiwan. The jets would be built in Fort Worth.

"This sale is a win-win, in strengthening the national security of our friend Taiwan as well as our own, and supporting tens of thousands of jobs in the U.S.," Cornyn said in a statement. "Saying no here would mean granting Communist China substantial sway over American foreign policy, putting us on a very slippery slope."