The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a "monster" of a program and some
of its toughest developmental challenges may still be ahead of it, said deputy
JSF program manager Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan today, in
refreshingly frank discussion of the biggest weapons buy in Pentagon history. In
particular, those challenges revolve around software delays, a glitchy helmet,
and fixing a toxic-sounding relationship between the Pentagon and F-35 maker Lockheed
Comparing the troubled
F-35 program to a massive aircraft carrier that two years ago "was gonna run
aground," Bogdan said that F-35 program manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and his
team, with Lockheed Martin and with the help of the Office of the Secretary of
Defense, "has steered that ship...away from the shoals so it won't run
aground." The F-35 office finally "has a plan in place today that is,
potentially achievable. I'm not sure I could have said that" two years ago,
said Bogdan during a speech at an Air Force Association-sponsored conference in
Maryland. "What I can tell you today is, at least we can see the light at the
end of the tunnel and at least we have reasonable confidence that [with] what
we have in place today, we can get there...."
The F-35 effort has
encountered years worth of delays and billions of dollars in cost-overruns after more than a decade in
While the $1.5 trillionprogram has righted itself over the
past two years and is sailing toward open seas -- his words, not ours -- it
faces some serious challenges in the years ahead.
"If folks don't think that
things are gonna go wrong in the next two to five years in this development
program, I gotta tell you otherwise," said Bogdan. "We're gonna find things
that we didn't know about and are gonna have to deal with them, but at least
this scheduleis laid out to accommodate unexpected problems."
Now that costs and
production-line problems are both coming down, the biggest challenges facing
the program are related not to the stealthy jet's design, but software -- and
most importantly, people, said Bogdan.
Here are the biggest
challenges the F-35 now faces, according to Bogdan:
Developing the final and most complex block of software
on the aircraft, known as Block III.
Retooling the jet's incredibly complex computer-based
maintenance -- a system known as ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information
System) -- to protect classified information on the aircraft.
Fixing the jet's potentially revolutionary helmet,
which isn't working well enough to allow pilots to fly into combat with.
Building trust between the Pentagon office charged with
managing the program (known as the Joint Program Office), F-35-maker
Lockheed Martin, and the various customers for the jet. Bogdan said the
relationship between these three groups is the worst he's ever seen in 20
years of working on acquisition programs.
First off, "there's an
awful lot of software on this program, it scares the heck out of me," said
Bogdan of the jet's more than 10 million lines of software code. "It's the
gorilla in the room."
The development of the
jet's Block II software is 90 to 120 days behind schedule, according to the
two-star general. Because of this delay and the increased complexity of the
jet's third and final software block, Lockheed Martin and the Defense
Department have added additional resources to fielding Block III software -- code
that will fuse all of the jet's famous sensor capability together for its
pilots -- which is much more complex than the Block II software, according to
Still, "what gives me pause
is that [Block III] is very, very complex because that is where we do all the
integration of all the pieces and parts of the software and the mission systems
on the airplane, so the level of complexity in Block III goes up a notch," said
Meanwhile, the program is
hustling to make the jet's helmet - made by Vision Systems International -- ready
to go to war by 2015, when the Marine Corps plans on flying its jets
operationally. The helmet is meant to display all of the jet's vital flight and
combat information on its visor as well as provide night vision capability. The
current version isn't displaying that information correctly.
"Today we have a helmet
that works in a very rudimentary way" but has number of problems and "we have a
plan place to fix them," said Bogdan. "If the Marine Corps truly intents to go
IOC[Initial Operational Capability
-- the plane's ready-for-basic combat date] in 2015 with Block IIB software,
not all of those fixes will be ready by then."
Bogdan's office has
dedicated one F-35 test jet to do nothing but helmet test missions over the
next 60 to 90 days to determine if the helmet can perform basic combat
"We're gonna gather as much
information about that helmet as we can to answer two fundamental questions,"
said Bogdan. "One: how good or bad is the helmet today? What can we really do
with it in terms of night flying, flying in the weather, our basic warfighting
missions for Block IIB. Second, is the helmet viable long term if we make those
fixes? If it's not then we've got a big problem because you don't fly this
airplane without [this] helmet."
The JSF office is also looking at the BAE Systems-built backup helmet to make
sure that it can meet programs needs should the primary helmet prove
ALIS is meant to feed
information on the health of each F-35 to maintenance crews and mission
commanders, automatically detecting problems and scheduling the jets for
maintenance among other tasks. As such, ALIS is a "heck of a complex system . .
. if we don't get [ALIS] right, we don't
fly airplanes," said Bogdan.
What's wrong with ALIS? One
really important word: security.
"You don't mission plan
without it, you don't maintenance debrief without it, you don't pull your
training records without it, you don't make sure the airplane is ready to go
without it -- so it's so crucial to maintaining this airplane. It's frightening,
almost," said Bodgan. "One of the big problems was security. You can imagine
that a system that has all that information about an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
in it: what parts need to be fixed, what pilots are qualified, what maintainers
are qualified, what mission planning is going on. You've got to protect that
information.... We did some testing and found some vulnerabilities."
But the Joint Program Office
is on track to install the fixes by November, according to Bogdan.
Finally (and most
importantly, according to the two-star general), "the relationship between
Lockheed Martin, the JPO, and the stakeholders is the worst I've ever seen -- and
I've been in some bad ones," said Bogdan. "I guarantee you: we will not succeed
on this program if we do not get past that."
"It should not take 10, 11,
12 months to negotiate a contract with someone we've been doing business with
for 11 years," added Bogdan as Lockheed Martin officials looked on. "There's
something fundamentally wrong with that. We've got to fix it, we've got to fix
it.... I will tell you that I think that's the biggest threat to this program
Put all of this together
and "boy, you've got one complicated program on your hands. It's a monster,"
said the two-star general.
Finally, a program this
complex must fall back on the fundamentals of good acquisition. "That means
know where every penny is, know where every person on the program is and what
they're doing and know where every pencil is -- what I mean by pencil is, all
the equipment -- you've got to have that kind of discipline." Bogdan reiterated
that last sentence when asked by Killer Apps how the F-35 program will be
run going forward.
As to finance concerns and
cost overruns, "there is no more money or no more time in the development of
this program," said Bogdan. "We will not go back and ask for anymore."
If the program is run with
discipline, transparency, accountability, and a focus on how to make the
airplane affordable in the long-term, "we've got a shot at getting this done. We've
got a shot -- it will not be easy, though," said Bogdan.