White House expected to name Frank Kendall as top Pentagon weapons buyer

The Obama administration soon will likely ask the Senate to remove the acting tag from Frank Kendall’s title and make him the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, defense sources say.

Kendall has been the acting undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics since October, when Ashton Carter vacated the post to become the new deputy Defense secretary. Kendall had been the top deputy in the acquisition shop before Carter's promotion.

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The White House’s coming selection of Kendall is the intertwining of a highly qualified candidate and a disinterest in a confirmation fight with Senate Republicans, defense insiders tell The Hill.

The list of candidates inside the administration to take over the top acquisition, technology and logistics post always was a short one.

Kendall for months has been the front-runner. He has been doing the job on an acting basis since taking over for Carter, while defense sources say he has impressed his bosses.

“Kendall is exceptionally well-qualified, with extensive service in senior acquisition posts and academic credentials spanning business, engineering and the law,” defense insider Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said.

“It's hard to imagine a more capable candidate for the Pentagon's top weapons purchasing position,” Thompson said. “He seems to have spent his whole life preparing for the job.”

Kendall has held a list of senior Pentagon jobs, and is viewed by industry and Congress as a veteran acquisition official who has extensive experience working with industry on contracts and weapons program management issues.

He also has been a top vice president for Raytheon, where he ran the firm’s engineering division. Kendall also has been a consultant for defense manufacturers.

Those experiences mean he should have clout with industry as the Obama administration continues its effort to improve the Pentagon’s ties with defense firms.

Kendall is a West Point graduate and spent a decade in the Army.

Officials also took a close look at Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Sean Stackley, the sea service’s acquisition executive, say defense and congressional sources.

But in recent weeks, all indications are the job is Kendall’s to lose, defense sources said.

“I have not heard any [talk] regarding any other candidates for the job,” said one Pentagon and White House adviser.

The next Pentagon buying chief will inherit a number of troubled major weapon programs, as well as the defense budget cuts on pace to hit $900 billion over a decade.

One top issue Kendall will inherit on a full-time bases is how to remedy new problems with the largest Pentagon weapons program ever: the F-35 fighter jet.

An internal Pentagon report prepared for Kendall’s office found new F-35 problems that could spawn further delays and cost spikes for the troubled fighter program.

The internal Defense Department report uncovered 13 issues that likely will cause new setbacks for the F-35.

“Five issues were found where major consequence issues have been identified, but root cause, corrective action or fix effectively are still in development,” states the Pentagon report, made public by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Three other issues “were found where potentially major consequence discovery is likely pending outcomes of further discovery,” the DOD report states. And five more “were found where consequence or cost is moderate, but the number of moderate issues poses a cumulative concurrency risk.”

“More problems threaten to exacerbate the already spiraling costs of the F-35, which has already been set back by years of delays and double-digit cost growth,” said POGO’s Nick Schwellenbach, who has reviewed the report. “The F-35 is the world’s most expensive weapons program, currently estimated to cost some $385 billion for development and production, and about $1 trillion to maintain and operate F-35 aircraft over decades.

“Given that the F-35 is in an early stage of flight testing, the QLR team believes it is likely more problems will come to light,” Schwellenbach said.

While models were being purchased from June 2010 to November 2011, 725 change requests for the fighter rolled into the program office, the DOD report found.

“Of the 725 change requests that have been at the engineering kickoff stage, 577 are still not yet available to implement,” the DOD report stated. “These figures are indicative of the large volume of change traffic on this program and low design maturity.”

“The QLR team essentially urged the F-35 program to go slowly and make production decisions based on how the aircraft does in testing," Schwellenbach said.

Kendall’s predecessor, Carter, pushed F-35 contractor Lockheed Martin hard on new contract terms under which the firm would take on more of the burden of additional cost breaches. It will be up to Kendall to negotiate future F-35 contracts.

And he’ll have to appease some in Congress while doing so.

Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) earlier this month called the program “a tragedy.” The Senate’s self-styled maverick also said Lockheed has ripped off U.S. taxpayers.

Two days later, a letter surfaced in which he and panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) urged Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to examine whether the F-35 fighter is safe enough for pilots to begin flight training.

They cited an internal Pentagon report that concluded a current version is not safe enough for that testing.