The Pentagon's top acquisitions official says that he is cautiously optimistic that the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has made enough progress in its development to ramp up its production rates starting in fiscal year 2015.
"At this point I can say that I'm cautiously optimistic that we will be able to raise production as planned," says Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "The development programme is executing close to plan, a couple of areas are slipping a little bit in schedule, but the slips are not dramatic."
As such, Kendall says unless some sort of serious new problem emerges, the Pentagon will be able to order a ramp-up in production of the tri-service stealth fighter later this "fall". The decision would be reflected in the President's 2015 budget proposal, he says, and will follow the existing 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 29 aircraft per year plus a few more for international customers.
Kendall says the while sequestration cuts are a problem, the Pentagon will do everything it can to increase the F-35's production rates. "The F-35 is our highest priority conventional warfare weapons system," he says. "Because of that, we'll do everything we can to protect it."
Meanwhile is also good news on the sustainment costs, which are projected to come down "significantly", Kendall says. The Pentagon is working hard to reduce those lifecycle costs-which could involve adding competition to sustaining the jet. "I think we will make a substantial dent in the current projections," he says.
Kendall adds that the F-35's cost per flying hour should decline significantly after a review he expects to conduct in the fall. The current cost figures are based on older estimates by the Pentagon's Cost Assessments and Program Evaluation office, he says, but those need to be updated. "I can tell you that the number is coming down," Kendall says.
Kendall cautions, however, that the F-35 programme still has a long way to go. The jet is only 40% of its way through its flight-test programme, and there are still many aerodynamic and structural tests that have still to be completed. Additionally, software needs to be developed and weapons integration needs to be tested. There are also fixes to problems that were discovered earlier that need to be verified.
As always, software development could still be an issue. For example a critical design review for the next software block has slipped by 45 days. But there has been "nothing dramatic" that might derail the programme.
"It's too early to declare victory," Kendall says, but the programme is on a much more sound footing than it was two years ago. "There is plenty of risk left in the programme."