WASHINGTON — The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is on the right track, but key milestones still must be met, top Pentagon officials told a Senate panel today.
“On the whole, the F-35 design today is much more stable” than in previous years, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee.
Kendall reiterated comments made last week that the program should be ready for an increase in production in the fiscal 2015 budget, but added that meeting deadlines on software blocks and the high-tech helmet that is required to fully access the F-35’s suite of technology could still pose challenges.
“There are a number of technical issues that need to be resolved,” Kendall said, including the tailhook for the Navy’s F-35C carrier variant that will undergo testing “in the next few months. The helmet is still being worked on. At this point and time, the helmet is on the edge of acceptable. It needs to be better.”
But overall, “we’ve made a lot of progress in the last couple of years, and I don’t see anything at this point in time that’s going to keep us from getting the airplane where it needs to be.”
Speaking after the panel, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chair of the subcommittee, expressed confidence in the program.
“I think that this project is stronger today than it’s been. I think a fifth-generation aircraft is needed for our future, and I think we made mistakes along the way in the acquisition process,” he said. “I hope today’s hearing will help us learn from those mistakes.”
Asked whether he expects the lessons learned from the Joint Strike Fighter to be applied to future projects, Durbin said, “I hope so, and if I have any input I hope to apply them. But these are not easy, these are not all black and white when you’re dealing with projecting the defense needs of 12 years from now and the technology of 12 years from now, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Kendall, the top procurement official at the Pentagon, was joined by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh; Gen. John Paxton, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps; and Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the F-35 Joint Program Office.
All three service representatives noted how important the F-35 is to maintaining air dominance in the coming decades, especially in the face of emerging fifth-generation threats from foreign nations such as China.
Much of the panel involved the challenges of concurrency, which critics have charged led the Pentagon to produce planes that would then need expensive upgrades down the line.
Bogdan, who has identified concurrency as a key program challenge in the past, told the panel that he believes those costs are coming down.
Concurrency estimates “have come down about 25 percent looking to the future on how many fixes we’re going to have to make to the airplanes, and the actual cost of making those retrofit fixes and getting the fixes back into the production line are also down by 25 percent,” Bogdan said. “So if you take both of those together, our initial estimates of concurrency cost back three, four, five years ago are probably 50 percent lower now.”
Bogdan said that while he is confident on meeting commitments to deliver software blocks 2B and 3I, he is “less certain” about the final capability, software block 3F, being ready for delivery at the end of 2017.
The 2B software is the package the Marines plan to use for their initial operating capacity in 2015 and the Air Force in 2016. The 3I software is the package that will be delivered to international partners.
After the initial panel, a second hearing was convened with a more skeptical trio.
While agreeing that the program is on a “much sounder basis” than in 2009, Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) office, said he was concerned the flight test program needs more “rigorous” developmental testing.
He also noted a lag in what OT&E considers completion of software block tests. As of the end of May, not all block 1 testing was completed. Block 2A was supposed to be completed in February, with Gilmore estimating it could finish anywhere between January and August of 2014. Similarly, block 2B will likely not be finished with flight testing until December of 2014, a lag of six to 12 months.
Gilmore was joined by Michael Sullivan, the Government Accountability Office’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
Sullivan warned that funding assumptions for the program could derail the gains made by the program.
“The program’s current cost estimate assumes annual funding of more than $12 billion on average for development and procurement over the next 24 years,” Sullivan said. “Congress may want to consider whether these funding assumptions are feasible in this fiscal environment.”
He also said that when negotiations on the seventh procurement of F-35s are completed, the Pentagon will have invested about $34 billion to procure 150 aircraft with less than half of the flight testing completed, leaving the program still vulnerable to the after-effects of concurrency.