The incoming director of the F-35 program says that a poor relationship between the Joint Program Office, customers and prime contractor Lockheed Martin is the biggest threat to the success of the stealthy, single-engine fighter.

“It is the worst I have ever seen” in a career of managing complex Pentagon programs, including the contentious KC-46A downselect between Boeing and EADS last year, says U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan. The notoriously forthright general officer spoke Sept. 17 at the Air Force Assn. conference outside Washington, in a small room overflowing with onlookers.

Bogdan says he plans to break down the barriers among the partners immediately upon taking over the program office. For the time being he is the deputy until the Senate approves his nomination for the leadership position. “We have got to shed our baggage,” he says of program staffers who are unwilling to move forward more productively.

The F-35 has been characterized for years by contentious and protracted contract negotiations. Talks on low-rate initial production (LRIP) lots 4 and 5 have each taken more than a year, a situation that Bogdan says is unacceptable given the partners have worked together for 11 years.

LRIP 5 negotiations are still ongoing, and Bogdan notes that there is more actual cost data from previous lots to help with pricing going forward. But the high final costs of previous lots may not be “how much you want to pay” for the aircraft, he notes. This could mean that Bodgan intends to follow a similar approach that applied to the Boeing KC-46A contract, where the manufacturer effectively operates at a loss up front on the program, on the assumption it will make up the revenue once production gets into full swing. That is unlikely for the F-35 until later in the decade.

He also notes that as negotiations get bogged down, “We can just slow down,” a luxury the joint program office has owing to the excessive concurrency between development and production. A swift program pace has always been a goal of Lockheed’s as the company seeks to speed production so that it can produce in greater numbers and begin making more revenue.

Bogdan says that as of now he is “not all that concerned” that the proposed merger of European aerospace giants EADS and BAE Systems could perturb the F-35 program. He declined to provide an official view on the issue, but said that nothing to date has raised a red flag on why the deal couldn’t go through because of BAE’s heavy involvement with the F-35. The British company manufactures the aft fuselage in the U.K.

Meanwhile, Bogdan is looking to revamp plans down the road for the F-35 sustainment program. He opens the door to competing all or part of the sustainment of the massive aircraft program in the hopes of introducing innovation and affordability. It has largely been assumed that Lockheed Martin would have a virtual monopoly on contractor sustainment activities. “The basic strategy on the way we are going to sustain this program has got to change,” he says.

For example, Lockheed Martin produced the Autonomic Logistics and Information System (ALIS), a comprehensive system that manages everything from mission planning to aircraft diagnostics and parts supply. “It is so crucial to operating this [aircraft] that it is frightening a little bit, because if it doesn’t work, this airplane doesn’t work,” Bogdan says. He intends to see if there are ways to introduce competition into the sustainment — from opening up work to contractors or allowing for more activity from the Pentagon’s depot system.

The latest software release on ALIS, Block 1.3, has been late because security vulnerabilities were discovered. They are being fixed and Bogdan says the problems should be validated by the middle of November, just as the U.S. Marine Corps plans to stand up its first F-35B squadron at Yuma, Ariz. Without the software improvement, the Marine jets will be grounded there, which would be a “tragedy,” Bogdan says.

Furthermore, the problems with the 1.3 software also have held up delivery and payment of the latest aircraft out of the F-35 final assembly line at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant.

The F-35 will be the frontline fighter for the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy and eight partner nations. Israel and Japan also have signed on for foreign military sales.