Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall expects to begin increasing production of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35 beginning in 2015, marking a shift forward in the $400 billion program.

“Unless there is a major surprise, I think we will be able to ramp up production,” he told reporters June 13 after conducting a CEO conference of major suppliers for the single-engine fighter. Ideally, Kendall says he would like to increase production by half each year.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s “highest priority conventional warfare weapon system,” Kendall said.

His tenor after this year’s CEO meeting is a stark contrast to last year, when he was far less supportive in his comments due to uncertainty over unit pricing, lagging development progress and nagging hostilities between Pentagon leadership and Lockheed Martin.

There has been a “remarkable change in tone since last year,” he said, noting Lockheed Martin’s new leadership, including a new CEO, a new head of the aeronautics division headquartered in Fort Worth and a new F-35 program director.

The company is in its fifth year of low-rate initial production and the buy is at about 30 per year. Negotiations for LRIPs 6/7 are under way, and they should wrap up this summer.

“We’ve made more progress in 30 days than we did in 11 months last year,” said USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program director of the current talks. LRIP 5 contract discussions were highly contentious as Lockheed Martin and the government were at loggerheads over how to share the cost of retrofits needed for delivered jets.

Kendall plans to review the F-35 for its full-rate production readiness in the fall. Though program officials are eager to move forward with a higher annual production rate, which is needed to reduce the per-unit cost of the aircraft — the F-35A is priced at about $105 million per copy now — wrapping up the development program in fiscal 2017 is still the top priority.

“We tried in ’13 to make up for some of the lost funds we had for development” due to defense-wide budget cuts,” Kendall said. “Getting development done is still our top priority for the program.”

The test team is “making good progress [though] I don’t want to be euphoric about this,” Kendall says. He noted progress in addressing deficiencies found in the aircraft during earlier testing, including shortcomings in the helmet-mounted display, engine and complications with the tailhook design for the F-35C.

Meanwhile, Kendall says the Pentagon is continuing to address concerns about the cost of ownership for the F-35. Recently, the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation group submitted a report to Congress that listed no reduction to the $32,000 flying hour cost of the F-35, despite strong focus on lowering it for more than two years.

Bogdan has suggested that for at least one customer, the Netherlands, it could be as low as $24,000 per flying hour.

This issue is set to be at least partially rectified for the U.S. services during Kendall’s program review in advance of a full-rate production decision.

“I can tell you that the number is coming down,” he said. “I don’t know if it is coming down dramatically, but it is coming down”