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Carter Reassures, SASC Sets F-35 Hearings

Sen. John McCain is worried about the F-35 and thinks the Defense Department has done a pretty lousy job of telling Congress about the program's woes.

"As a strong supporter of the F-35, as a person who supported cancellation of the F-22, I'm very disturbed" about how the Pentagon kept the Congress informed. He said at today's Air Force posture hearing that the SASC has not "been adequately informed of the extent of what the difficulties are."

So McCain approached Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and asked him to schedule a hearing next week. Done, said Levin.

McCain pressed Air Force Secretary Mike Donley for answers on the seemingly ever-unfolding date for IOC. Air Combat Command, Gen. William Fraser surprised most observers last week when he told reporters that the program’s restructuring will stretch the System Design and Development phase out to 2015, two years later than planned.

Donley offered some answers that are sure to lead to more questions. Basically, he told the SASC that it's up to Gen. Fraser at ACC to work out when he will need in terms of capabilities and when. After the hearing, a group of confused scribes chased after Donley and Air Force CoS Gen. Norton Schwartz to ask just when IOC would occur and why Fraser couldn't just nail down a date. Schwartz said it would be several months before an answer is at hand. Fraser needs to look at pilot training schedules, what mix of planes with which mix of capabilities he needs and when all those will come together.

McCain told the Air Force leaders that "it's disappointing to all of us in these difficult economic times when we see these delays and cost overruns."

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's acquisition czar, Ash Carter, and Lockheed Martin CEO Robert Stevens held a carefully managed press conference to show a united front, reassure increasingly worried allies and dampen speculation that the program's problems are just beginning.

"First, we now have a realistic plan going forward, not a blindly optimistic one but not a fatalistic one either," Carter said during the conference call. The government, working with Lockheed, was able to "reduce the slip in development from 30 months to 13 months," Carter said.

And changes to the contract will give industry incentives to do better. In particular, Lockheed may be able to restore some of the 122 planes cut from the five year defense plan as a result of the restructuring. Stevens said "the way we intend to do that is to earn our way, pay as you go."

Stevens also said that he has made changes at Lockheed Martin to improve the company's performance. And he moved to address rumors that senior executives would get the ax. "I am the accountable executive at Lockheed Martin," he said, adding that he has "absolute confidence" in Dan Crowley, F-35 executive vice president and program manager for the Joint Strike fighter. But Lockheed was compelled to "replace some people in the program" and added more people with expertise in production and flight line development.

In addition, Stevens said he brought on Christopher Kubasik as chief operating officer to help improve the company performance . "His job is to assure that we are more responsive and more focused and can execute in a more timely manner, and can do the right thing at the right time," he said.

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