Marine Commandant Steps Up Oversight of F-35B Fighter Program
The commandant of the Marine Corps intends to take a more hands-on role in the troubled F-35B program — the vertical-takeoff version of the Joint Strike Fighter.
“I want to make sure I have oversight,” Gen. James F. Amos, said Feb. 18 at a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.
Under the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act, military service chiefs are restricted in how closely they can manage acquisition programs, which by law have to be civilian-run. Working within those legal limits, Amos plans to increase his own involvement in the F-35B program, which has been plagued by technical setbacks. Marines,after all, are the “end users” of the aircraft, and should be able to participate in key program decisions, along with the entire cadre of F-35project managers and the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., Amos said.
The F-35B for the past year has been on life support, with speculation swirling about its possible cancellation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed to give the program a two-year reprieve so it can solve technical problems such as excess weight, and the ability to transition from vertical to horizontal flight, and vice versa.
“I’m comfortable with the two-year probation,” Amos said. “But I want to get off probation as soon as we can.”
Soon after becoming commandant of the Marine Corps in December, he said, “I sat down with the senior leadership and I told them I was going to become like Bill Russell:a player and a coach." Nonetheless, he added, “I’m not the program manager. … There’s legal implications on that,” Amos said. But he will actively participate in senior management deliberations and provide expert advice, said Amos, who is a seasoned naval aviator.
Amos has sent Lockheed officials and the F-35 program office — run by Navy Vice Adm. David J.Venlet — a list of “metrics” that he plans to track closely. The weight of the aircraft is one of them. He also will keep an eye on test flights and how each aircraft performs in upcoming trials.
“One of my goals is that there will be no surprises,” Amos said.
To keep up with the daily flow of F-35B activity, Amos has set up his own situation room at the Pentagon, where he can monitor program data that is updated daily.
“We have a big powwow once a month” with the program’s top leaders and manufacturers, he said.“That gives us an opportunity as the end user to be able to make decisions”such as whether a particular performance requirement can be “traded off” to save weight or cut costs, for example. “The Marine Corps now has oversight,”Amos asserted.
He said he was confident in Venlet’s abilities as overall F-35 leader. Venlet took over a year ago, following a major Pentagon-level review that led to a sweeping restructuring of the program. Many of the setbacks in the Marine version of F-35 are the same that have plagued the Air Force’s and the Navy’s variants,such as manufacturing delays, flight test slowdowns, and software troubles. The F-35B, however, has suffered structural design problems and component failures that have fueled criticism that the program is too ambitious and not really necessary, since Marine pilots could also fly the Navy’s carrier-based F-35C.But Amos and other senior officials have continued to fight for the program, in the belief that theMarine Corps’ identity is tied to its ability to fly hovering jets that can operate in remote areas, from short runways. The F-35B —estimated to cost $120 million apiece — is scheduled to replace aging AV-8B Harrier vertical-takeoff attack planes.
Venlet said earlier this week that the survival of the F-35B program is dependent on meeting key performance goals, such as maintaining propulsion levels while reducing aircraft weight, ensuring that it can gain full flight clearance and demonstrating that it can function on ship decks.
The F-35B test program is being accelerated but it can only go so fast, Venlet said Feb. 15 at a National Aeronautic Association luncheon in Arlington, Va. “One year isn’t long enough to demonstrate it,” he said.
Venlet said he is encouraged by the high level of interest shown by Amos and the other service chiefs. “The commandant has told me, 'I want to be the program manager,’” Venlet said. “I like that. … All I have to do is make him the smartest guy in town on all things STOVL [short takeoff and vertical landing]. I’m committed to doing that.”
The long-term plan for the estimated $350-billion F-35 program remains to acquire 1,763 jets for the Air Force, 480 for the Navy and Marine Corps (a yet to be determined mix of B’s and C’s) and several hundred others for foreign allies. The Pentagon’s 2012 budget request includes nearly $10 billion for the program.