Marines wade into program management

Marine Corps leaders are changing how the service buys weapon systems by injecting themselves into program management.

At a time of declining Pentagon budgets, struggling big-ticket programs with large price tags are targets for termination. If lawmakers fail to reach a debt-reduction deal, a process called sequestration would trigger $600 billion in national defense cuts.

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Enter senior Marine Corps leaders, who have taken a leading role in turning around two weapon programs central to the service’s future plans: the F-35 fighter and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) efforts.

Marine senior leaders “believe we must be engaged” in major programs beginning “early” in their development, Assistant Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said Wednesday.

Dunford has taken a leading role in salvaging the JLTV program, a joint effort with the Army to field a new combat truck.

The program nearly fell apart this year, with the Marine Corps threatening to walk away.

The vehicle that was pursued was too heavy and too expensive for the Corps, officials say.

Senior service officials recently have said each JLTV was on pace to cost $600,000. Dunford revealed Wednesday, however, that some cost projections were as high as $800,000 for each model.

That figure raised eyebrows in defense circles. Winslow Wheeler, a congressional defense aide-turned-analyst, said per-model costs like that show that there are ample places from which to trim the annual Pentagon budget.

After Corps officials threatened to leave the program, the Army agreed to make design changes.

The result is a program that is expected to produce vehicles that will cost around $300,000 each. Dunford said some cost projections are as low as $240,000 per vehicle.

And it will be much lighter than initially envisioned.

All of this equals a major victory for the Marine Corps, in which Dunford was personally involved.

“I want to know personally what’s driving the cost of that vehicle,” Dunford told a forum in Washington. He envisions JLTV as a driver to “change the culture of acquisitions.”

While Senate appropriators have proposed killing the truck program, it is expected that House-Senate conferees on the Pentagon spending bill for 2012 will keep it alive.

In another example, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos huddled Wednesday morning with the managers of the F-35 fighter program, according to a senior service official.

“We do this no less than twice a month,” Dunford said Wednesday.

Amos has taken on a major role in keeping the often-troubled F-35 program from careening out of control, which could place it on the chopping block due to shrinking Pentagon budgets.

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Dunford said F-35 program managers cannot add any weight to the Marines’ short-takeoff-and-landing (STOVL) variant without Amos pressing them about taking the same amount of weight off another part of the jet.

The Corps’ F-35 variant was last year placed on two years of probation by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. New Pentagon chief Leon Panetta has yet to lift that, but Amos has said he is optimistic the probationary period will be lifted early.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) this week hammered the F-35 program, calling it a “tragedy” and alleging prime contractor Lockheed Martin has overcharged taxpayers.

It remains unclear, however, what McCain’s endgame is; the panel’s latest Pentagon policy bill made only modest changes to the F-35 program’s funding and plans.