A single organisation based in a monochrome office complex across a motorway from the Pentagon manages a global supply chain with a projected 35-year value of roughly $450 billion; more than the GDP of Austria. Its name is the bureaucratic-sounding Joint Program Office (JPO), and it manages, of course, the acquisition of the Lockheed Martin F-35.
Until 2010, it seemed the main purpose of this organisation’s staff was to furiously dig the fighter’s cost and schedule into a very deep hole. But while the F-35 has not been immune from cost and technical setbacks since the 2012 appointment of Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan as programme executive officer, it has trended between stabilising and recovering.
Now, some US lawmakers want to dismantle the office and break it into at least two pieces. At the instigation of Senator John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to “devolve” authority for the F-35A to the Department of the Air Force and the F-35B and F-35C to the Department of the Navy. The provision has a long path to take before becoming law.
It is possible to articulate constructive reasons for breaking up the JPO, but do not be fooled. McCain has a hard-earned reputation as a slayer of military acquisition programmes. Many of his previous take-down attempts – including leased Boeing 767 tankers, an AgustaWestland-built presidential helicopter, a GE Aviation/Rolls-Royce alternate engine for the F-35 and the Lockheed F-22 – found their mark. McCain has called the Joint Strike Fighter programme a “scandal and a tragedy” and “worse than a disgrace”.
Make no mistake: McCain is not making a good faith attempt to improve F-35 bureaucracy. His proposal is a calculated ploy to divide and conquer. The JPO consolidates management of three major F-35 variants developed in partnership by one set of nine countries and acquired so far by a different set of nine countries. To disband that organisation is to weaken the power of the programme it oversees.
Some would rejoice. As the most expensive weapon system in history, the F-35 programme has many adversaries, jealous of its funding and priority during budget wrangles. It is not irrelevant that the JPO failed in its real purpose. Tasked to keep the three F-35 variants up to 90% common, these so-called sister aircraft today share only about 25% of their part numbers.
A vote to disband the JPO now, however, is not a bid to improve programme management – it is phase one of a scheme to destroy the F-35.