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F-35 Program Chief: Longer Program Assignments Needed for JSF Fix

Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that large, complex acquisition programs require military leadership to stay in managerial positions longer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegy)
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that large, complex acquisition programs require military leadership to stay in managerial positions longer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Jim Varhegy)

After more than 15 years of development, wasted spending, cost overruns and delivery delays of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Pentagon officials and Capitol Hill lawmakers alike are familiar with the pitfalls of buying an aircraft even before the technology it requires is ready.

But the Air Force general currently overseeing the F-35 program at the Pentagon said it is not only about the flaws of concurrent design, development and purchasing. It's also about "leadership continuity."

"If you have a very large program, a complex program like the F-35, it will do you no good to have leaders in place for only a few years," Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program officer for the F-35 Lightning II, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. "It takes a year just to learn what's going on."

The way the military works, advancement through the ranks depends on changing assignments every few years, he said. That means officers are just getting familiar with a program when they're onto their next assignment and someone new comes in, having to learn from scratch.

And the system repeats itself. For that reason, Bogdan said in response to a question from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, the solution is not strictly on the acquisitions side of the house, but on the personnel side.

"How do you provide the incentives for a military person to continue moving up in rank if you leave him in a job for five or six years," he asked. "But that's sometimes what's necessary for very big, complex acquisition programs."

"You need incentives to keep a person in uniform in place for years," he said.

Bogdan testified before the committee alongside Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions Frank Kendall III, J. Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation at the Pentagon, and Michael Sullivan, the Government Accountability Office's director of acquisition and sourcing management.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, opened up the hearing noting that the F-35's "record of performance has been both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule, and performance."

"The F-35's schedule for development has now stretched to more than 15 years," he said. "Costs have more than doubled from original estimates. Aircraft deliveries amount to no more than a mere trickle relative to the original promises of the program. The original F-35 delivery schedule promised 1,013 F-35s of all variants would be delivered [to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps] by the end of fiscal year 2016. In reality, we will have 179."

Right now, he said, the final F-35 is scheduled for delivery in 2040.

Bogdan also said programs such as the F-35 get into trouble when all the risk for its success rests with only one side: government or industry.

"We must ensure the risk between government and industry is balanced," he said. "If the risk is all on government or all on industry you will have bad behavior on both sides.

"We did not get that right in the early part of the F-35 program."

Though Bogdan did not say which side carried all the risk with the F-35 program, the skyrocketing costs and long delays have benefited industry over the military and taxpayers.

 "How do you provide the incentives for a military person to continue moving up in rank if you leave him in a job for five or six years," he asked. "But that's sometimes what's necessary for very big, complex acquisition programs."

Sullivan said the biggest lesson he sees in the F-35 program is not to do another like it.

"The first thing that we've learned with this is that you shouldn't concurrently develop technology without a product and you shouldn't concurrently buy aircraft when you're still developing them," Sullivan said.

Gilmore called the F-35 program "an extreme example of optimistic, if not ridiculous, assumptions of how a program would play out."

"The decision to begin production [of the plane] before much of the development had really been accomplished was really a bad one," he said. But it was also typical of the Defense Department's mindset, where officials are often overly optimistic about schedules and costs, according to Gilmore.

"Which then sets up the program managers you put in charge of these programs to look like failures from the outset, which is a terrible thing to do to them," he said.

Kendall said there has always been a "strong bias toward optimism [at the Pentagon]. It's easier to get a program if it costs less."

"Most of the problems in acquisitions stem from being in a hurry, being confident things will be cheaper, better, faster than they actually will be," he said.

Kendall said it is important to have sound management policies and competent professionals who will resist the tendency to spend money only because it's in their budget.

"It's something that has to be reinforced throughout the chain of command, starting with the Secretary of Defense," he said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

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