Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter took a lot of heat last week when president-elect Donald Trump slammed the program as “out of control.” But the U.S. Air Force general in charge of the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) got the chance to tell his side of the story today during a media briefing.
Before 2011, the program did have significant problems, racking up $13.5 billion in cost overruns as well as a six-year delay, JPO Chief Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan readily acknowledges. Then came the critical cost breach in 2010, which led the Pentagon to re-baseline the program. But since 2011, the program has completely turned around, he stressed.
“Given the opportunity, I would like to try to explain to the new administration that this is a vastly different program from 2011 on,” Bogdan said Dec. 19 at the JPO offices in Arlington. “I will just lay the facts out on the table and then let them make their own judgements, because I don’t think the program cost-wise is out of control, nor do I think it’s out of control schedule-wise.”
Bogdan noted the transition team had not been briefed on the F-35 program before Trump’s Dec. 11 tweet, which sent Lockheed’s stock tumbling, closing down 2.4% by the end of the day. Since then, Trump’s team has called and asked for a briefing, Bogdan said. A firm date has not yet been set for the briefing, but Bogdan says he is sure the JPO will discuss the program with the new administration in the near future.
In fact, Bogdan welcomes scrutiny by the Trump team. His job and the job of the JPO is to give the incoming administration “the good, the bad, and the ugly about this program and let them make their own decisions.”
But Bogdan wants to make one thing clear: The program is NOT out of control.
“Since 2011 we have basically been on schedule, since 2011 we have basically been on budget, we are delivering now today 50-plus airplanes a year that when in the hands of the warfighter make a huge, huge difference,” Bogdan said.
Bogdan is correct that costs are now under control, with the price of one F-35A down to $102 million in the most recent batch. But the program is still seeing schedule delays and cost overruns. The F-35 development program is expected to rack up $532 million in cost growth, Bogdan acknowledged. Dec. 19. However, he downplayed that figure, explaining that $100 million is money the department took out of the budget in 2014 to pay other bills, and another $165 million is for added scope such as new security requirements. The remaining $267 million is a true overrun, driven by unforeseen challenges such as the 2014 engine fire, stability issues with 3i software, redesigning the hook and helmet, and other efforts, Bogdan said.
This overrun puts the cost of the SDD program at $14.2 billion overall, Bogdan said. While this is above the $13.9 billion objective, set by the 2011 acquisition program baseline (APB), it is still within the threshold cost of $15.1 billion, he stressed.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of Defense has directed the JPO to prepare to continue flight testing through May of 2018, which would be a seven-month delay from the expected end date of Oct. 31, 2017. However, Bogdan was adamant that the F-35’s development phase will be completed months before that deadline, by the end of February 2018.
Though Bogdan stressed that he is “not a salesman for the F-35,” he did note the fifth-generation fighter jet’s importance in maintaining the U.S. military edge out into the future.
“I think that this program is vital for air dominance for us and our allies for the next 50 years, it replaces many, many, many legacy fleets, it has tremendous international participation and involvement, and it is a necessary program for the United States to maintain its security,” Bogdan said. “I will, if given the opportunity, tell that to the new administration.”