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Pentagon criticizes F-35 contractors but hands over the dough

With a clock ticking down to zero hour on the budget sequester this past week, the big contractors building the Pentagon's over-budget, under-performing, and designed-on-the-fly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter weren't finding much warmth in either the northern or southern hemisphere.

But they managed to get a check from the Pentagon anyway.

The funds arrived a few days after a rhetorical shot heard halfway around the world, fired by Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the newly-installed chief of the Pentagon's  F-35 advanced warplane program.

He complained to reporters in Australia that the plane's builders were trying to "squeeze every nickel" out of their deal with the U.S. government rather than worry about the long-term health of the trillion-dollar fighter-bomber program, the priciest weapons project in U.S. history.

The outspoken general, a former test pilot, added: "I want them to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years. I want them to take on some of the risk of this program, I want them to invest in cost reductions, I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I'm not getting all that love yet."

Hours later, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain read a news report of Bodgan's remarks aloud to Alan Estevez, President Obama's nominee for the post of principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

As Time's Mark Thompson pointed out in his blog Friday, McCain doggedly demanded to know why in the face of what he called "massive failures, massive cost overruns," Lockheed had managed to earn a 7 percent profit since the program began in 2001.

Estevez demurred. "I can't address the past."

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McCain sounded dumbfounded.

"You can't address the past?"

"I can't address, you know, what happened from 2001 till where I am today."

McCain bore in on him. "You can't — you can't address that at all?"

Estevez replied that Bogdan was working closely with the plane's lead contractors — Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney — "to work through the problems."

"So since 2001 — and we're in 2013 — we are beginning to sort through the problem. Is that — is that — is that what I can tell my constituents, Mr. Secretary?"

McCain, who once called the F-35 both a scandal and a tragedy, told Estevez he was frustrated. "This committee has been tracking this program for many years," he said. "We've had promise after promise. We've had commitment after commitment. And yet the only thing that has remained constant is that Lockheed has earned a 7 percent profit since the program began…"

Hours before sequestration was scheduled to kick in Friday, the Pentagon nonetheless announced it had awarded Lockheed Martin a contract for $334 million to buy parts for the latest batch of F-35s. The money will be used to build 29 of the jets.

In a statement Thursday responding to Bogdan's comments Lockheed Martin said "we strive daily to drive costs out of the program." The statement said Lockheed has worked with Bogdan and the Air Force to cut costs by, among other things, reducing the price per aircraft by 50 percent since the purchase of the first plane and lowering labor costs for the most recent batch of warplanes by 14 percent.

Australia has plans to buy 100 F-35s to serve as the backbone of its air defenses, and Bogdan was there to try to keep the deal on track. Selling the plane to foreign countries is critical to lowering its cost from the current $120 million to $90 million by the end of the year, Pentagon officials have said.

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Pierre Sprey, a systems analyfighter aircraft, was skeptical of Bogdan's promise to lower costs. "His contention that the price will come down is simply false," he told the Center for Public Integrity. "It's going to overrun a lot more."

Sprey, a prominent critic of the F-35 program, was one of the "whiz kids" Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara brought to the Pentagon in 1966. He was a key figure in the development of the F-16, F/A-18 Horney and A-10 "Warthog" ground support aircraft

Sprey predicted that the F-35's nagging performance problems would persist as the test program becomes more rigorous." All the toughest testing is still ahead," he said. "They've put off all that tough stuff for obvious reasons because it's having trouble with all the easy stuff."

Bogdan's visit to Australia followed the recent airing of a highly critical documentary by the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation called "Reach for the Sky."

The documentary detailed the plane's escalating cost, development delays and myriad problems, including the troublesome software that operates its computerized controls. Because of fears the fuel tank could explode if hit by lightning, the film notes, pilots are not allowed to fly the plane within 25 miles of a thunderstorm.

"That's true," Bogdan admits. "But let's put the context on — on that scenario. I have airplanes in the field that we know should not be flying around lightning. Will this problem occur in the future? No, because we have the known fixes for it and we will fix it. But today, you're absolutely right, the airplane cannot fly in lightning. Um, in the future will it be able to? Absolutely."

Orlando Carvalho, general manager of the F-35 program at Lockheed Martin, told the filmmakers that "lightning protection is good example of the type of normal discovery that you're going to find as you execute a test and development program."

As he has many times previously, Bogdan told the broadcaster that many of the plane's troubles are due to the decision to build and test it before it was fully designed.

"A large amount of concurrency — i.e. beginning in production long before your design is stable and long before you've found problems in test — creates downstream issues where now you have to go back and retrofit airplanes and make sure that the production line has those fixes in them," he says. "And that drives complexity and cost."

The latest snafu occurred on Feb. 21, when a crack slightly longer than a half-inch was found in the turbine blade of a test F-35 based at Edwards Air Force Base in California, forcing a grounding of the entire fleet while other planes were examined. By late yesterday, no other cracks were found and the suspension was lifted.

Kyra Hawn of the Pentagon's F-35 Joint Program Office said that the crack occurred in one of the first of the 17 test jets delivered that was used for the "rigorous testing of the (aircraft's) operational envelope" — flown at high speeds and subjected to steep dives and sharp turns. It was also one of the planes with the highest number of flight hours, she said.

According to a joint statement from the Joint Program Office and Pratt & Whitney, an examination showed the blade cracked due to exposure to "high levels of heat and other operational stressors on this specific engine" and that no engine redesign is required.

Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.

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F-35 Joint Strike Fighter