After years of mishaps, including cost overruns, design snafus and delays, the Pentagon’s F-35 program leaders are now hoping to ramp up production of the costliest jet fighter program in U.S. history.
“We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to raise production (in the fall) as planned,’’ Frank Kendall, under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told a room of reporters and other Pentagon officials at Lockheed Martin Aerospace Corp.’s factory headquarters on Thursday.
“This is not the program I saw in 2010,” Kendall said. “It’s much more stable, the design is much more stable, issues have been fleshed out and we have a path to try to resolve them.”
Kendall and several other Department of Defense officials were in Fort Worth on Thursday to attend an annual CEO business roundtable between the aerospace giant and its major customers.
Production is expected to reach 30 aircraft in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1, and should exceed that rate by several times over the next several years. More than 2,300 planes are expected to be built for the military.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighter jet program has been mired in controversy almost from its inception more than a decade ago. Cost overruns exceeded cost projections and delays resulted in production delays. As a result, the estimated $400 billion defense program has drawn criticism from watchdog oversight groups, the U.S. Government Accountability Office and key leaders at the Pentagon.
The criticism also has been focused on the management of the program by former Lockheed head Larry Lawson who retired from the company earlier this year to accept a job at another aerospace firm.
At Thursday’s press conference, Pentagon leaders expressed satisfaction over new leadership at Lockheed. Even a former vocal critic said he was encouraged by the progress made in the last few months under the company’s new head of aerospace Orlando Carvalho.
Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, who attended Thursday’s press conference, said his opinions are shifting.
“When I first came on the program ... I was pretty vocal about the relationship the government had with Lockheed Martin,’’ including another contractor, he said. “I can tell you there have been significant changes in leadership (at Lockheed). ...
“We believe our working relationship is definitely improving,’’ Bogdan said. “We are communciating much, much better with each other now.
“I”m encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last few months,’’ he said.
Kendall, however, also cautioned that it was still too early to declare victory. While F-35 program costs appear to be under control, risks are still associated with the program.
“We still have a long way to go ... I don’t want to be euphoric about this ... there’s a good deal of work to be done,” Kendall said.
Some of the progress with the F-35 program have been due to the government’s shift to fixed-price contracting, Kendall said, which shifts more of the risk associated with costs and overruns to Lockheed Martin. He also said that the negotiations for Lot 6 of aircraft were proceedingt more smoothly than for prior lots of planes.
In December, Lockheed received a Pentagon contract guaranteeing a final installment of about $127.7 million for the fifth production lot of F-35 fighters. It later received Pentagon contracts worth up to $3.67 billion for 31 additional F-35 jets, according to news reports.
Lockheed Martin employs more than 14,000 employees at its west-side factory. More than 9,300 employees are working on the F-35 fighter jet program.