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Senators want answers on end of F-35B's 'probation'

The top men on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, both have been around Washington for a very long time. They know how the game is played.

If, for example, a secretary of defense says he's going to put a troubled major acquisition program on "probation," meaning that he'd support canceling it if it doesn't improve -- even though that status has no real meaning and the decision would be taken after he'd left office -- you don't just give a worldly shrug. You don't say, 'Hey, I get it, this is a made-up thing to placate mainstream reporters and borderline Washington audiences to make it sound like we're getting tough on this program.'

No -- you buy in to the imaginary premise and double down on its own internal logic. You dont say, Eh, it's a TV show, it's just for fun. You say: Hey, the Starship Enterprise can't use its transporter beam at warp speed, and yet in this episode, it does! Explain the discrepancy!

Levin and McCain wrote a letter to Secretary Panetta on Monday asking just what the B did to justify his lifting "probation" during his trip last month down to Naval Air Station Pax River, Md. They repeated to him that they thought Secretary Gates, who first declared that you couldn't use the transporter at warp speed, had set down "specific courses of action" for Lockheed and the program. And yet they've seen nothing that explains why the B got a clean bill of health.

Wrote Levin and McCain:

For months, this Committee has insisted — most recently in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, under section 148, "Report on Probationary Period in Development of Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing Variant of the Joint Strike Fighter" — that the Department define specific criteria that would determine how the F-35B would exit probation. It is unclear to us that the Department has done so.

Nonetheless, the Department's "F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Concurrency Quick Look,"released on November 29, 2011, called for "serious reconsideration of procurement and production planning". And, just days ago, Department's chief operational tester reported that the JSF Operational Test Team (consisting of the Services' operational test agencies) assessed the F-35 program as not on being track to meet operational effectiveness or operational suitability requirements.

We appreciate that the development of F-35B has enjoyed some success over the last few months, after several years of having fallen short. We similarly understand that engineering solutions to known problems with the F-35B's structure and propulsion have been identified. However, in the intervening time since probation was imposed, more problems with the F-35B's structure and propulsion, potentially as serious those that were originally identified year ago, have been found. This is salient where the F-35B has completed only 20% of its developmental test plan to date. Your decision, therefore, appears at least premature.

The Department's hastily-prepared report on the F-35B, intended to fulfill the statutory requirement of section 148, was provided to the Committee only after you announced your decision. It purports to justify your decision by explaining that based on "holistic view" of this weapon system "sufficient progress in F-35B development, test and production [has been made] such that no uniquely distinguishing issues require more scrutiny than the other variants of the F-35". Notably, this standard was never originally defined or articulated as the exit criteria determining the F-35B's removal from probation. It is, rather, now being offered as an after-the fact rationalization of decision already made.

Translation: Wait, how can it be that the man John Connor sends back in time to protect his mother, so she can give birth to him and he can grow up to lead the human resistance, could wind up becoming his own father? "Probation" has a lot of the same problems as "The Terminator," and it was just as real. But the Pentagon pitched this script, and Levin and McCain have used its own story problems to show they understand what's going on here -- at every level.

 

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