WASHINGTON — The Defense Department plans to dissolve the F-35 Joint Program Office and revert to a more traditional management structure where the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all run their own program offices – eventually.

In a March 27 letter to Congress, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official acknowledged that splitting up the F-35 management into smaller offices is likely the way to go for the future of the Pentagon’s largest acquisition program.

But exactly when such a transformation will occur was not defined in the letter written by Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and the expectation in the Pentagon is that it could happen within the next several years.

“In order to effectively integrate and sustain the F-35 in the joint force, the military departments must have more direct ownership of the F-35 program and leverage organic capabilities, processes and infrastructure,” Lord wrote in the letter, which was sent to the congressional defense committees and first acquired by Inside Defense.

“The department will evaluate the right time to begin this transition through the F-35 executive steering group, which has participation across the department.”

The department intends to formulate a plan over the next year on how best to transition to service-led offices, Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Patrick Evans told Defense News.

Evans told Defense News that the transition will occur in three phases:

  • “A measured restructure of the existing F-35 management structure, which begins immediately.”
  • A hybrid structure, where separate service-run F-35 program offices report to a Joint Program Executive Officer, a position currently held by JPO head Vice Adm. Mat Winter.
  • The full transition, where the services will have separate program offices and program executives that will report to the military department’s acquisition head. “The full transition dates will be determined through a conditions-based detailed implementation plan with risk-informed criteria,” he said.

Lord’s letter lays out nine near-term actions that will enable the stand up of F-35 program offices specific to each military department. Lord’s letter specifies that the eventual management structure will be comprised of an F-35A office led by the Air Force and an F-35B/C program office run the Navy and Marine Corps.

Some of the near-term changes involve greater participation by the services within the F-35 JPO. For instance, the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy will establish service deputies at the O-6 level. Those officials will be collocated at the JPO to provide the services’ feedback on JPO decisions and also to help execute the transition to separate service-led offices.

The JPO will also bring in “F-35A, F-35B and F-35C variant leads” that will eventually form the “nucleus” of future transition teams, the letter states.

Meanwhile, the services will “conduct a gap analysis, charter and implementation plan to stand up individual fleet management offices.” That plan will include a proposed schedule and criteria for initial and full operational capability for the offices.

The Pentagon will also conduct an audit of the JPO’s billet structure and review the F-35 program charter with the intent to optimize manpower and cut down on bureaucracy, it said.

While the changes could make it easier for the services to have oversight over their respective F-35 variants, the eventual dissolution of the JPO could make it more difficult for international customers to interface with the program.

The JPO currently functions as a one-stop shop for foreign buyers — some of which, like Japan, are considering buying more than one variant of the aircraft. The office also oversees the work done by final assembly lines in Japan and Italy, as well as at sustainment hubs around the world.

Evans said that the department will continue to work closely with F-35 international partners, but acknowledged that “in the longer-term, current international agreements will need to be updated and transition to service-based agreements. The phased implementation approach allows time to work through these changes in close coordination with our international partners in a way that maintains our strong commitment to them and our partnership.”

In an emailed statement, the JPO said it was supportive of this initiative to improve the management of the F-35 program.

“We are implementing improvements to increase transparency, and we’ll continue to assess and evaluate the most efficient ways to support and manage this vital national defense program,” the statement read.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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