[Editor's Note: A former carrier attack pilot, Viewpoint author USN Rear Adm. (ret.) Craig Steidle was the second director of the JSFPO, from August 1995 to August 1997. He has also been associate administrator for exploration at NASAand a visiting professor of aerodynamics at the U.S. Naval Academy.]

Challenges in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter were the focus of Aviation Week & Space Technology's recent editorial (Oct. 1, p. 58), Loren Thompson's comments in Forbes and Bill Sweetman's response on Aviation Week's Ares blog. We need to reflect on the valuable lessons learned from this complex process.

When the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program, which evolved into the current JSF, arose from then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin's 1993 bottom-up review, the initial and primary goal was to develop a joint family of systems to reduce life-cycle costs.

Following principles established by the 1986 Packard commission, warfighters and technologists worked together to make cost-performance trades, while applying technology to cut costs, not just to add performance. Technology was to be matured before engineering and manufacturing development started, and government and industry would form integrated product teams to incorporate all available best practices. These initiatives were underpinned by a disciplined requirements generation process and rigorous cost-performance trade studies.

But as the program moved on, the focus on affordability atrophied. Both the government and contractor were at fault. What began as a core pillar didn't evolve into a culture that would drive process development, induce change and inform decision-making.

In 2008-10, I had the privilege to chair several Independent Manufacturing Review Team (IMRT) assessments of the F-35 program. My colleagues and I were appalled to see that neither the contractor nor the JSF Program Office (JSFPO) mentioned the words “affordable” and “affordability” during initial presentations.

The kind of cost-avoidance program that should have encompassed lean and producibility initiatives and other affordability improvements did not exist, nor was it asked for. The statements of work that we reviewed did not incorporate cost reduction.

Difficulties were to be expected, but resolving development issues had diverted attention from cost control. Recovery was made more difficult by the JSFPO's arrogance in shutting out the technical authority of the services' systems commands, and the contractors' rigid adherence to legacy manufacturing practices—to the point of “normalization of deviance,” or “we have always done it that way and it worked.”

The results: There was an immature risk-management process. Change-control managers could neither define process problems nor forecast change volumes. Schedules were constantly revised, with no integrated program management schedule. This resulted in late-to need parts, a stream of changes due to design immaturity and significant out-of-station work. Both schedule and cost were suffering.

A program-wide focus on affordability would not have eliminated all these issues, but it would have demanded early solutions. That the F/A-18E/F was rolled out on schedule—as well as on weight and cost—was largely due to a vigorous emphasis on cost at all levels of the government/contractor team that was reflected in every presentation, trade study and process.

Thompson implies that cost increases resulted from government actions in cutting the size of early production batches and adding (to be correct, reinstating) flight-test sorties. In fact, the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation team should be congratulated. Without its efforts, we would have numerous aircraft parked and awaiting costly retrofits.

Our IMRT assessment had raised serious doubts about the contractor's ability to meet the production schedule. The team was not delivering aircraft on time, or meeting any other schedule. There were “masked” parts shortages, the result of parts diverted to support out-of-station work and later aircraft completions. As a result, the schedule was changed.

These lessons are applicable to all technology development programs. I found the same blind optimism, technical arrogance and normalization of deviance at NASA and in other programs I have had the opportunity to assess.

The current F-35 program leadership has made strides in bringing this system to full-rate production and has embraced the pillar of affordability. Our requirements reviews show that the warfighters will have the best complement to their F-22 and Super Hornet/Growler strike capabilities, with a system performance beyond our initial expectations.

We need to remain strongly committed to this joint program. Use these hard-learned lessons, embrace affordability as a core best practice and together deploy this system to the fleet—or watch our board of directors on Capitol Hill take it away.