The Pentagon’s top officer overseeing the F-35 program put Lockheed Martin, the lead contractor, on notice last year with some unexpected straight talk about his views of the program saying the relationship between Lockheed and the Pentagon's Joint Program Office is the “worst I've ever seen.”
A year later, Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan is set to return to the Air Force Association’s annual conference, but the same fireworks are not expected as the F-35 Joint Program Office and Congress has seen progress in the F-35 program.
Air Force leaders have said publicly they are confident the A-model of the F-35 – the Air Force’s version --- will achieve initial operational capability by 2016.
Initial operational capability, or IOC, is the target date each service sets for fielding an initial combat capable force. The IOC dates for the different F-35s have changed several times, starting with 2010-2012, according to a March 2013 report on the program by the Government Accountability Office.
Currently, there are 78 F-35s flying today amongst the services to include the Marine Corps, according to Lockheed Martin. The contractor expects to have 90 by the end of the 2013 and by the end of 2016 the military will have 200 F-35s in the air, and more than 50 percent of them by the Air Force, said Mike Rein, a Lockheed Martin spokesman.
The Defense Department next year plans to spend $8.4 billion to buy 29 F-35s, including 19 for the Air Force, six for the Marine Corps, and four for the Navy. The funding includes $6.4 billion in procurement, $1.9 billion in research and development, and $187 million in spare parts.
The missed deadlines and cost overruns of the F-35 Lightning II, the most expensive weapons system in U.S. military history, have been well documented. But there are some critics who have begun to offer praise to the program.
Among them is Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He told a group of reporters on Tuesday he is more confident in the program, though, he was cautious to point to any one common factor that has put it over the top.
His confidence follows steps forward in testing as well as a recent vertical night landing by the Marine Corps version of the F-35. Test pilot Lt. Col. C.R. "Jimi" Clift completed the first ever vertical night landing aboard the USS Wasp at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland on Aug. 14.
Still Lockheed Martin knows it still has work to do to completely return to the good graces of Bogdan and the Joint Program Office. Bogdan, in Congressional testimony, cited the F-35s advanced software as one of the largest challenges still facing the program.
The F-35 requires more than 8 million lines of code, compared with about 2 million for the F-16 and less than 1 million for other fourth-generation fighter aircraft, Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed vice president of F-35 program integration and business development, said in June.
F-35 program engineers still have to upgrade the software inside the cockpit from the Block 2 to the Block 3i. Critics like Winslow Wheeler director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Project on Government Oversight, said he won’t believe the F-35 has met IOC until the F-35 has the Block 3i onboard.
Lockheed, for its part, responded to Air Force concerns over a lag in the development of F-35 software by boosting its software workforce by 200 engineers.
O’Bryan told reporters that Lockheed “pulled the best and brightest from throughout our organization” to boost the software program, with many from outside the aeronautics division and specializing in space, ship-board, and sensor technology.
The company also invested $100 million to build a second laboratory, he said, where the engineers are now working around the clock in shifts to write, test, and verify the code.
Bogdan will speak on Sept. 17 about the program. One year ago, he said the Pentagon and the Joint Program Office will have to “fundamentally change the way we do business with Lockheed Martin.”
He conceded last year that Lockheed had made improvements. The question is did they do enough to avoid a second public tongue lashing from the Pentagon’s top F-35 officer.