Gates Criticizes F-35 Progress, Fires Top Officer

Star Telegram

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced strong dissatisfaction Monday with a lack of progress on the F-35 joint strike fighter program, publicly taking prime contractor Lockheed Martin to task.

Gates, at a Pentagon media briefing on the proposed 2011 defense budget, announced the firing of the top military officer managing the F-35. Gates said $614 million will be withheld from Lockheed to help the government cover rising F-35 expenses.

“Progress and performance of the F-35 over the past two years has not been what it should, as a number of key goals and benchmarks were not met,” Gates said. It was only last April that he staked the future of American combat air power on the F-35 Lightning II by killing Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor.

“It’s clear there were more problems than we were aware of when I visited Fort Worth” in August, Gates said of the upbeat progress reports he had received from Lockheed and military officials.

Speaking to reporters at the briefing on the planned $741 billion defense budget, Gates said he decided to replace the Pentagon’s manager overseeing the F-35, Marine Major Gen. David Heinz, with a higher ranking officer — a three star general or admiral — to run the program.

“To now move forward in this program in a realistic way, one cannot absorb the additional costs that we have in this program and the delays without people being held accountable,” Gates said.

Officials did not name the new manager, but sources told the Star-Telegram it will be Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command who oversees all Navy and Marine aviation programs. He is a former Navy fighter pilot and test pilot.

Since Gates’ Aug. 30 trip to Lockheed’s Fort Worth plant, where he made a highly publicized endorsement of the F-35 and praised work on the program, Pentagon officials have been forced to confront the harsh reality that development and testing is well behind a schedule revised just two years ago.

“I’ve been waiting for Gates to realize he had been misled,” said Tom Christie, a retired longtime Pentagon civilian procurement executive whose last job was head of weapons testing under President George W. Bush.

Lockheed spokesman Chris Geisel said in a prepared statement that the company “appreciates Secretary Gates’ commitment and support to the F-35 program and the critical role it will play in the future defense of our nation. We have been working with the Secretary … on a plan to get the program back on track and are committed to stabilizing F-35 cost, affordability and to fielding the aircraft on time.

“Secretary Gates,” the statement continued, “made it very clear that all procurement programs will have accountability and we support that position. We understand what’s expected — there is a clear set of performance and milestone criteria — and we are confident we will achieve them.”

As expected, the budget reduces the number of F-35s in 2011 from 52 to 43, and shifts funding to pay for efforts to speed up development and testing work.

Lockheed says 15 of 19 test planes have been delivered. But only four of 13 flight test planes have flown, and one of those, the initial prototype, has already been retired. Nine others are in various stages of work, including four still on the assembly line. Six ground test planes have been put into structural and component testing.

As the Star-Telegram reported in November, flight testing is running at least six months behind the schedule revised in 2008. Less than one-third of the flight tests planned for the last three years have been accomplished, a tiny fraction of more than 5,000 required test flights.

And a recent report by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Testing pointed out numerous other less visible issues. The majority of computer simulation and modeling programs, which Lockheed officials have said would eliminate the need for much flight testing, are far from complete. Software development, which Lockheed says is going well, is running about 12 months behind schedule, according to the testing office.

The restructuring of the F-35 program had been signaled by Pentagon officials for weeks.

Lockheed Chief Executive Robert Stevens told financial analysts last week he had readily agreed to forego some of the company’s “award fees,” incentive payments the company had not yet earned, so that the funds could be used for development and testing.

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