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Comments on F-35 Builders a ‘Shot Across the Bow,’ U.S. General Says

Mar. 5, 2013 - 08:23PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
The first Lockheed Martin production model F-35C carrier variant, known as CF-6, raises its landing gear on takeoff on its first sortie on Feb. 14.
The first Lockheed Martin production model F-35C carrier variant, known as CF-6, raises its landing gear on takeoff on its first sortie on Feb. 14. (Lockheed Martin)
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. general in charge of the multinational F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has softened the tone of the controversial comments he made about the program’s contractors last week, saying they were blown out of proportion and that the program is in good shape.

He did, however, acknowledge that he wanted to give a “shot across the bow” to prime contractor Lockheed Martin and engine-maker Pratt & Whitney.

“Part of my comments [in Australia] were a frustration with both contractors that affordability is my number one issue and every single day we have to attack that,” Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, told a conference on Tuesday. “Every business decision and every action we take on the program needs to be thought of with affordability in mind, and that was just a sort of wake up call to let everyone know it’s still important to me.”

However, he said he felt his comments were taken “a little out of context.”

“I never said the program’s in trouble, and that’s not what should have been inferred from my comments in Australia,” Bogdan said. “What you should have inferred is what I said. I need everybody in this enterprise to worry about affordability. I need everybody.”

Bogdan’s take on the contractors was just one of a series of topics he covered in a wide-ranging talk as part of Aviation Week’s Defense Technology and Affordability Requirements conference on Tuesday.

Bogdan also told the audience, made up of reporters, international representatives and industry executives, that injecting competition into the program is a must to get sustainment costs down. He also disclosed that data for international partners was incorrectly marked as U.S. only, forcing a reclassification backlog.

Bogdan described the fighter program as going in the right direction, but that challenges — especially when it comes to affordability — remain.

While the program has a “tragic past,” Bogdan said the program has improved significantly in the past four years.

“From a resources standpoint, there is no reason why if we execute, and Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney execute, that we cannot finish this program on time,” Bogdan said. “I’m not sure you could have said that four years ago.”

In the past two years, the program has “fundamentally stayed on track,” but overall “it’s more good news than bad news.”

International Transparency

The general talked about the need to be transparent with international partners that are injecting billions of dollars into the program.

“For us in the United States, a couple billion dollars here or a couple billion dollars there isn’t that much,” Bogdan said. “But if you go to a country like Norway or a country like the Netherlands, or a country like Canada, those billions of dollars are big bucks for them.”

That transparency is not limited to explaining where the partner’s investments are going. It includes opening up technical information to the air worthiness offices with all the partners — something made challenging by a previous decision to classify large reams of technical data.

Bogdan said that a number of technical files that are needed by international partners to clear the F-35 for flight were improperly marked as being U.S. only, leaving a large backlog that the Defense Department has to reclassify.

“Early on in this program, for whatever reason, much of the technical data was stamped U.S. only. Now we have a backlog of technical data that is marked U.S. only that is not U.S. only,” Bogdan said. “Not a pretty situation to be in, because there’s reams and reams of data we have to go back and re-look at. But it has to be done.”

DoD is now working with contractors to make sure new data is classified correctly.

While he told the audience he is confident the unit cost per plane will continue to go down during each successive buy, Bogdan acknowledged that costs could rise if the international partners move their commitments.

“There isn’t a whole lot that I can do relative to the flyaway cost of the airplane if partners or the services move their production orders out,” Bogdan said. “That’s just economics – less quantities mean the unit cost of the airplane is going to go up in the short term. That is a fact of life.”

As a example, he pointed to Turkey’s decision to move two airplanes two years out from Low Rate Initial Production-7 (LRIP-7) to LRIP-9. The Joint Program Office estimates that move will raise the cost of “each and every” plane that comes out of LRIP-7 by about $1 million.

“Any one of us makes a change and we all pay for it,” he said.

Concurrency and Competition

Bogdan told the crowd that while the majority of the fifth-generation fighters have returned to service, three of the jets remain unable to fly following February’s fleet wide grounding due to the discovery of a crack in an engine blade.

Those three include the plane where the crack was found, which was the second F-35 ever to be delivered to the Air Force known as CTOL-2. That engine was put through extreme tests in order to see the limit of the engine, and all involved in the program believe that kind of stress would never be put on an actual F-35. While no cracks were found on the CTOL-3 and CTOL-6 models, both remain grounded following their inspections because they were used in similar stress tests.

One of the big, ongoing issues with the F-35 has been how the program handled concurrency, as it was being built before the design phase was complete. Bogdan acknowledged the issue in September as part of his first public comments since joining the Joint Program Office, and he expanded on the issue on Tuesday.

Calling it “the great sin of the F-35,” Bogdan said there was no way to move the program ahead without working on projects concurrently due to the size and scope of the project. To prove his point, he listed a series of ongoing projects — designing the tailhook on the carrier variant, developing capability for flight testing, producing airplanes at around 30 plus a year, standing up and fielding units and starting a training program – that have to occur all at once.

Concurrency is “part of the reason making progress on this program is slower than I like. But it’s a reality, because the program is so broad in its front,” Bogdan said.

But he added that there are ways to reduce the costs associated with concurrency.

The largest risk with developing the jets simultaneously with production is the need to retrofit and fix structural problems discovered in planes even as more units are being produced. The largest cost comes from having to strip down a manufactured plane and put in a fix.

So the Joint Program Office and Lockheed worked together to adjust their durability testing schedule ahead of where it used to be, resulting in potential problems being identified sooner and cutting the number of retrofits required. All three models – Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — are now months ahead of schedule on their durability testing.

“The faster we get through our durability testing,” Bogdan explained, “the less likely it is we’re going to build airplanes that need structural retrofits.”

Additionally, the Joint Program Office requested Lockheed pick up 50 percent of concurrency costs that occur during the production of LRIP-5.

“Guess what happens when you put a contractor’s skin in the game?” asked Bogdan. “Things improve. They improve magically sometimes.”

Bogdan said the time frame from when a problem was identified to when a retrofit fix was completed used to be 18 months, but Lockheed has managed to get it down to 13 months starting with LRIP-5.

When talking affordability, the general called operations and sustainment (O&S) costs “the big gorilla.” While he took issue with the $1 trillion sustainment figure that is often used, if O&S costs aren’t reduced the plane could “potentially be unaffordable in the future.”

To help combat those costs, Bogdan said he would like to see competition added into the program.

“Competition is a good thing,” he said, and singled out four areas he “absolutely intends” to see competed in the future: sustainment on support equipment, training, the global supply chain and ALIS, the massive digital package that provides the technological backbone for many of the advanced features on the jet.

While O&S costs continue to concern him, Bogdan said issues such as the design of the high-tech helmet and the tailhook for the carrier variant are of lesser concern.

Technical issues “do not keep me up at night,” Bogdan said, as design features will be worked out over time. Those are the relatively easy fixes, even if they require more temporary groundings of the jet, like the two that occurred last month.

On software, Bogdan noted that while it may be true that 90 percent of the nearly 10 million lines of code required for the plane itself have been completed, the toughest challenge – integration – remains.

“There’s a lot more discipline in the way we’re doing software at this point.”

Bogdan praised Lockheed for increasing the number of networked computer stations working on code, resulting in a drop in how long it would take to put out a new increment in software, from 28 days to around three.

“From a software perspective, I have a glimmer of hope” that the Joint Program Office has a handle on the issues going forward, Bogdan said.

While the program as a whole is proceeding on pace, Bogdan noted that weapons certification on the F-35B jump-jet variant is about seven months behind where it should be. The delay was caused by an issue with the launch bay door in the jet’s design.

‘A Shot Across the Bow’

While traveling in Australia last week, Bogdan made headlines for his less- than-friendly comments about Lockheed and Pratt.

“What I see Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney doing today is behaving as if they are getting ready to sell me the very last F-35 and the very last engine,” he told a media roundtable at the Australian International Airshow at Avalon, southwest of Melbourne. ”They are trying to squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and engine.”

During Tuesday’s comments, Bogdan referenced his comments in Australia early, joking that “I have reached my quota this month for juicy, controversial, headline making quotes.” But he didn’t shy away from his combative statements to industry over the past six months.

“That was a shot across the bow because I have been slightly frustrated with real results, real actions that need to happen to reduce costs on this airplane,” he continued.

So what feedback has he gotten from industry after his comments?

“What I can tell you is I have spoken with the senior leadership of both Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney a number of times over the last four to five days,” Bogdan said. “They have assured me they have heard my message, they have assured me they will concentrate on working to get a better relationship and to drive costs out of the program in the long term.”

“I’m moderately confident that I have their attention now, so we’ll see where that goes,” he concluded.

A Lockheed spokeswoman wrote on Tuesday that the contractors full supports Bogdan “in his efforts to reduce costs and increase efficiencies with all aspects of the program.

“As the General has stated previously,” wrote spokeswoman Laura Siebert, “we have made significant progress enhancing the jet’s affordability as evidenced by the fact that we have reduced costs by 50 percent since the procurement of the first production aircraft; by outperforming U.S. government pricing estimates for the past contract lot buys; and by reducing labor costs by 14 percent between the 4th and 5th lot contracts. We do this in partnership with Lt. Gen. Bogdan and the entire JSF Program Office and strive daily to drive costs out of the program.”

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