Joint Fighter Faces Critical Period
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 11, 2010 Contracting for the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, touted as the future backbone of U.S. air superiority, must be brought in line with budget realities to make the aircraft affordable again, a defense official said today.
Key manufacturing and testing milestones are expected for the fighter between now and 2011, Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The next two years will be critical ones for the joint strike fighter,” Carter said, “with the delivery of test aircraft, … completion and analysis of hundreds of test flights, and commencement of flight training.”
Pentagon and defense industry officials made efforts last week to explain adjustments made in the wake of a Defense Department study last year that found the development phase of the revolutionary aircraft had slipped by 30 months. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took measures to reduce the lag time to 13 months, officials said.
Early last month, Gates announced the restructuring of the program -- the most expensive acquisition in U.S. military history -- with the objective of restoring the development program schedule.
Carter, in a phone interview last week, said he was able to report to program partners, including the prime contractor Lockheed Martin, that Gates’ modifications provided the program a realistic plan instead of one that was “blindly optimistic” or “fatalistic.”
The stealthy, supersonic F-35 will replace a wide range of aging fighter and strike aircraft for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and eight international partners.
The Defense Department report showed the program was taking longer and costing more than either the government’s development office or the contractor had predicted, said Carter, who emphasized that the review turned up no major technological or manufacturing problems.
“This schedule and cost trend was unacceptable for the taxpayers of the U.S. and for the other eight nations,” he said in the interview last week. “The schedule slip was estimated at 30 months in the development program. The cost of the airplanes had grown since 2002, and for a variety of reasons, the JSF program would breach the Nunn-McCurdy threshold.”
The Nunn-McCurdy law requires that Congress be notified of a cost growth of more than 15 percent in a program. It also calls for cancellation of programs for which total cost grew by more than 25 percent over the original estimate.
“We didn’t wait for the Nunn-McCurdy paperwork to play out,” Carter said. “We began to review and restructure the JSF program as though it were already in Nunn-McCurdy breach, and the results of that review and restructuring were subsequently described by Gates.”
Carter reiterated to lawmakers today that reports last showed the program failed to meet expectations, and described management measures put in place to increase oversight of the program.
“Studies conducted over the past year indicate that the JSF program fell short of expectations and must be restored to affordability and a stable schedule,” he told senators.
Gates elevated the position of the JSF program executive to three-star rank, which Carter said reflected a need for experienced and vigorous management. The executive primarily will focus on three phases of the contract life: the developmental test program, the ramp-up to full production and Nunn-McCurdy cost concerns.
“I pledge that we will keep this committee fully and promptly informed of this program’s progress. We will also keep our international partners fully and promptly informed,” Carter said. “The program will benefit from the fresh eyes and experienced managerial hand of a three-star program executive officer.”