Troubled F-35 fighter programs finally might get off the ground

Weeks after a major program shakeup, senior Pentagon and F-35 program officials suddenly sound optimistic about the future of the jet fighter — and lawmakers are voicing few concerns.

Aides close to the program said the recent programmatic changes made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates are at the root of the optimism. 

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Pentagon officials expect to drop the costs of the next F-35 contract beyond the 20 percent they trimmed off the last contract, Gates told the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee. 

They expect to “wring out” more savings from the program, allowing them to negotiate with Lockheed Martin to get an even smaller price tag, Gates said last Wednesday. The next contract with Lockheed will cover around 30 fighters, defense officials said.

Military officials added, however, that talks on a contract for the fifth F-35 production run are essentially on hold until Congress acts on a full 2011 defense spending measure.

Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, the Pentagon’s deputy F-35 program chief, last week said he sees “a positive future.”

That is partly because the program is showing signs of finally moving into the flight test phase, which has been delayed in the past.

“There is no doubt in my mind” that flight tests will begin later this year, Moore said. Program officials plan to begin flight tests “in the 1 Sept. timeframe,” he said.

What’s more, the production line is “holding to schedule,” Moore said. “This is the first time I could stand in front of you and say that.”

Lockheed officials — who have long offered brighter assessments of the program than defense officials — also are sounding more upbeat about fixing the Marine Corps’s F-35B model.

“The team has worked hard to correct the issues that held back the B variant last year, and we have made progress,” Steve O’Bryan, the firm’s vice president for F-35 business development, said in e-mailed responses to questions posed by The Hill. “The most obvious evidence is, of course, an increase in vertical landings, but also an increase in sorties on the [F-35B] jets.”

The F-35 has had problems with its initial “thermal management system cooling fan,” O’Bryan said. “A design update was implemented, and since then there have been no failures on any of the updated fans. We’re seeing similar progress with other components, and our flight rate shows it.”

Such positive forecasts represent a big change for the troubled program. In recent years, software problems, design flaws and testing delays have hamstrung F-35 development and delayed its fielding, according to a late 2010 report from the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation.

Gates in January, spurred by ongoing technical problems with the Marine Corps’ variant, placed it in a two-year probationary period. If problems are not corrected by early January 2013, Gates has said, the next Defense secretary should terminate the variant.

Gates added $4 billion to the entire F-35 program’s design and development phase, and shifted the tri-service program’s purchasing schedule.

Those moves were the latest changes to a program that for decades will constitute the vast majority of the U.S. fighter jet fleet. The Air Force, Navy and Marines are slated to buy around 2,440 models; U.S. allies say they will buy around 750 more. 

Perhaps because of the recent uptick in optimism about the program, few lawmakers have raised concerns about technical problems or asked pointed questions about the state of the biggest weapons program the Pentagon has ever undertaken.

The main exception has been Sen. Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE (R-Ga.), who, during a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, pressed Gates on whether climbing F-35 costs have given him any second thoughts on halting production of his favored F-22 fighter at 187 jets. 

Gates responded that he had none.

One congressional aide who closely monitors the F-35 program said lawmakers and staffers are optimistic because of the changes Gates made.

“I think the ‘optimism’ has to do with ... their current schedule,” the aide said. “Since the prior program had a lot of cost and schedule risk, I think these changes reduce that risk.”

Those changes “have reduced cost risk — albeit at a higher cost — reduced schedule risk ... and reduced test performance risk for F-35A and C since they will not be dependent on F-35B testing,” the aide added.

Those comments indicate a major shift from one year ago, when the House passed a version of 2011 defense authorization legislation that would have tied the release of full F-35 funding to meeting certain milestones. 

But in the end, lawmakers opted against placing restrictions on funding.

The House language came out of an Armed Services Committee that was at the time controlled by the Democrats; with Republicans now in charge, defense observers question whether the panel will again propose strict funding restrictions.

Although the 112th Congress has featured little criticism of the F-35 program, even while lawmakers grapple with paring down the federal debt, Pentagon and Lockheed officials admit that they have, as O’Bryan put it, “hard work to do.”

Adding to the work is a change of plans. The first two conventional take-off-and-landing variants being developed for the Air Force will spend four or five months at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Originally, those models were to go directly to Eglin AFB, Fla., to start flight tests.

Another part of that work will be “convincing” Pentagon brass and lawmakers that the program can be put back on track to purchase 40 models per year, Moore said. In 2010, Gates slowed production to about 30 jets annually.