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May 08, 2012

Pentagon to tie F-35 orders more closely to development and testing progress

Interesting F-35 news out of Washington today. Despite recent criticism from such luminaries as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, the Pentagon is taking a hard line on tying F-35 production to progress in development and testing.

Bloomberg News reporter Tony Capaccio reports:

The next contracts for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet, the U.S.’s costliest weapons program, will be tied more closely than previous ones to testing, assembly and software progress, the Pentagon’s program manager for the fighter said today.

Six of the 31 aircraft in the next round won’t be awarded until Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defense contractor, meets at least five criteria, including successful review this year of the latest software release, Vice Admiral David Venlet told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s airpower panel, according to a prepared statement.

(Watch the Senate hearing webcast herehttp://www.senate.gov/fplayers/jw57/urlMP4Player.cfm?fn=armed050812&st=1330&dur=6450)

The steps are the latest efforts to control costs for the $395.7 billion acquisition program. The first four contracts for 63 jets are exceeding their combined target cost by $1 billion, according to congressional auditors.

“The development program is taking longer and costing more to overcome technical issues,” Venlet said in prepared testimony. “The strategy continues the department’s rigorous management control.

“It is important that Lockheed Martin dependably perform and establish confidence that the F-35 is a stable and capable platform,” Venlet said.

The F-35’s total (estimated) acquisition cost has increased 70 percent, to $395.7 billion last month from $233 billion in late 2001 when the development phase began. The costs are calculated in comparable, inflation-adjusted “then-year dollars.”

The new approach “buys quantities based upon development and test progress,” Venlet told the panel in his statement.“This strategy provides a means to have control -- a dial -- on production that is informed by demonstrated performance against the 2012 plan,” Venlet said.

It also seeks a reduction in the “concurrency,” or overlap between production and testing, that has forced retrofits when problems cropped up, he said.

Venlet said Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin has agreed to the plan, which takes effect with the contract signed for this fiscal year’s 31 aircraft and as many as 29 proposed for fiscal 2013.

England, in a Defense News (subscription required) op-ed piece, was critical of the F-35 Program Office and the Department of Defense in general for, if I may summarize, not buying a lot more planes now and testing and fixing them later. He said that's the way they did it with the F-16. Yeah, he really did.

Pro defense industry and conservative think tanks like the Lexington Institute and American Enterprise Institute have similarly called for DoD, the Obama Administration and Congress to buy more airplanes faster and worry about their performance later.

- Bob Cox





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