WASHINGTON — Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt was sworn in as the new program executive officer for the F-35 Joint Program Office on Tuesday.

Schmidt, who was previously PEO for command, control, communication, intelligence and networks at Hansom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, succeeded Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, who is retiring. Schmidt, who on Monday tested positive for COVID-19, teleconferenced into the ceremony at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C.

Schmidt is now responsible for steering one of the most complex and vital programs in the Defense Department, the fifth-generation fighter flown by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, as well as multiple international partners.

Schmidt said he is “honored and excited to … lead the biggest and best program in the entire world,” and is looking forward to continuing to develop the F-35. He also thanked Fick for his work leading the program.

Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante said that with the U.S. facing complex security environments, the F-35 is a necessity more than ever, noting progress on the fighter would not have been possible without Fick.

“It’s the PEO’s job to keep the F-35 and our warfighters ahead of the curve,” LaPlante said. “It’s a difficult job. It’s a combination of building the Hoover Dam that flies, and managing the United Nations … oh, and by the way, with contractors too.”

More than 800 F-35s in all have been delivered, LaPlante said, and the program is providing unmatched capabilities to partners around the world.

“Fourth-gen [fighter] meets a fifth-gen; the fourth-gen dies,” LaPlante said, paraphrasing former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. “It’s that simple. It’s an incredible airplane.”

Fick, who served as the F-35 PEO for three years, said the program has “battled through a very daunting challenge” with a serious shortage of the fighter’s F135 power modules. But, he added, the program is now seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel,” and got there faster than expected by working together with government and industry partners, such as the Air Force Sustainment Center and F135 enginer-maker Pratt & Whitney.

The F-35 program still needs to improve depot capacity to maintain this progress, he added.

The program performed well during the coronavirus pandemic and other challenges in recent years, Fick said, and it will have to be ready to tackle unexpected challenges that are still to come.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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