Pentagon procurement czar ‘cautiously optimistic’ about F-35 production ramp up

The Pentagon’s top acquisitions official says that he iscautiously optimistic that the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter hasmade enough progress in its development to ramp up its production ratesstarting in fiscal year 2015.

“At this point I can say that I’m cautiously optimistic thatwe will be able to raise production as planned,” says Frank Kendall, theundersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Thedevelopment programme is executing close to plan, a couple of areas areslipping a little bit in schedule, but the slips are not dramatic.”

As such, Kendall says unless some sort of serious newproblem emerges, the Pentagon will be able to order a ramp-up in production ofthe tri-service stealth fighter later this “fall”. The decision would bereflected in the President’s 2015 budget proposal, he says, and will follow theexisting five-year spending plan.

That means the Pentagon will buy 42 planes in fiscal year 2015,62 in 2016, 76 in 2017 and 100 in 2018. Production is currently running at 29aircraft per year plus a few more for international customers.

Kendall says the while sequestration cuts are a problem, thePentagon will do everything it can to increase the F-35′s production rates.”The F-35 is our highest priority conventional warfare weapons system,” hesays. “Because of that, we’ll do everything we can to protect it.”

Meanwhile is also good news on the sustainment costs, whichare projected to come down “significantly”, Kendall says. The Pentagon isworking hard to reduce those lifecycle costs–which could involve addingcompetition to sustaining the jet. “I think we will make a substantial dent inthe current projections,” he says.

Kendall adds that the F-35′s cost per flying hour shoulddecline significantly after a review he expects to conduct in the fall. Thecurrent cost figures are based on older estimates by the Pentagon’s CostAssessments and Program Evaluation office, he says, but those need to beupdated. “I can tell you that the number is coming down,” Kendall says.

Kendall cautions, however, that the F-35 programme still hasa long way to go. The jet is only 40% of its way through its flight-testprogramme, and there are still many aerodynamic and structural tests that havestill to be completed.  Additionally, software needs to be developed and weaponsintegration needs to be tested. There are also fixes to problems that werediscovered earlier that need to be verified.

As always, software development could still be an issue. Forexample a critical design review for the next software block has slipped by 45days. But there has been “nothing dramatic” that might derail the programme.

“It’s too early to declare victory,” Kendall says, but theprogramme is on a much more sound footing than it was two years ago. “There isplenty of risk left in the programme.”

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