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Lockheed VP retires amidst F-35 criticism

The head of Lockheed Martin's aeronautic unit announced Monday he will retire from the company on April 5. Within his portfolio is the most expensive weapons program in the history of the U.S. military -- the Joint Strike Fighter.

Since last September, the military's top officer heading that program, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, has gone on the offensive criticizing Lockheed Martin for maintaining a poor relationship with the Pentagon and not taking the steps to control costs and ensure the program's health over the next 40 years.

However, Lockheed Martin said in a statement that Larry Lawson's decision to retire was made for personal reasons and had nothing to do with the comments Bogdan has made in the past few months. Marillyn Hewson, the newly appointed CEO and president of Lockheed, has also selected Orlando Carvalho, the head of the the F-35 Lightning II program, to take over for Lawson.

In place of Carvalho, Hewson has selected Lorraine Martin to take over the F-35 program. It's a natural step up for Martin who is serving as the executive vice president and general manager of the program. Both moves seem unlikely if Lawson was forced out by Lockheed leadership because of Bogdan's displeasure with the relationship between the F-35 program office and Lockheed Martin.

"Orlando and Lorraine are impressive leaders who have consistently demonstrated their ability to build strong customer relationships, successfully manage complex programs, and inspire our teams," Hewson said in a statement.

While Bogdan has taken the uncommon step of criticizing a lead defense contractor in public, others have pointed to progress in the F-35 program, albeit modest progress from a low point in a program riddled with cost overruns and missed deadlines.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report in which the investigators wrote that the "current outlook is improved," however the "long term affordability is a major concern." The report also highlighted that the F-35 program accomplished seven of its ten "key management objectives" in 2012.

Carvalho and Martin must face the forthcoming challenges of maintaining the program in the midst of the budget cuts brought on by sequestration and the continuing resolution. Despite the F-35's stature and the priority it receives from the Pentagon, it must still sustain a seven percent cut under sequestration.

Although Lockheed Martin sternly denies Lawson is leaving because of Bogdan's comments, one defense analyst close to Lockheed officials is not ruling it out. Loren Thompson, an adviser to multiple defense companies and an analyst with the Lexington Institute, wrote Tuesday that Bogdan's problems with Lockheed Martin had a lot to do with "the attitude he has detected" and less about "the developmental progress" of the program.

He said that attitude shift might have needed to come from the head of the Aeronautics business area.

"Lawson is a smart and forceful leader, very much in the mold of the men who created the modern aerospace industry.  However, he isn’t shy about showing what he knows, and sometimes that can rub customers the wrong way," Thompson wrote.

Thompson also noted the sweeping leadership changes occurring at Lockheed. As Hewson takes over for long time CEO Bob Stevens, the company will also have five executive vice presidents taking over for major portions of Lockheed's business.

The promotion of Martin also puts another woman in a major leadership position for a defense company, a recent theme within the defense industry.

As the Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, said March 12, "the fate of the program is in Lockheed’s hands.”

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