Selling the F-35: Not the Program Manager's Job
By Sandra I. Erwin
Striking international deals is a matter of survival for the F-35 joint strike fighter program. The aircraft was conceived with international partners in mind, to help lower the cost for the United States and also to promote closer alliances with buying countries.
The officer who oversees the $400 billion F-35 program says he is excited about growing international participation, but does not believe it is his job to promote the aircraft or serve as a program cheerleader.
"I am not a salesman for the F-35," says Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer.
"I am not an advocate for the F-35 program per se. That is not my job," he says during a meeting with reporters March 24.
Military and civilian officials who run big-ticket Pentagon programs might be expected to serve as champions for their projects, but Bogdan does not believe that is an appropriate role for a manager.
"My job is to run the best program that I can," he says. "That means I take the requirements from the war fighters, the money they give me and I run the most effective and efficient program that I can."
In the cutthroat international arms landscape, aggressive marketing is the norm. The F-35 currently is competing for orders in Canada and Denmark, both of which are partners in the program but have yet to commit to buying airplanes. Again, Bogdan insists that it is not his responsibility to convince these countries' leaders to buy the F-35. "Partners' governments need to be advocates for this, too," he says. "For me to travel to Denmark any time in the near future to try to bolster the F-35's image while they're making this decision, that’s flat out wrong , I would never do it, not going to do it, can't do it, it's not my job. ... We provided Denmark the best information we could. If the F-35 is the right airplane for Denmark, I'm glad for them, and we'll do everything we can to meet that."
Bogdan believes the users of the aircraft and the manufacturers are best suited to market the program. "The war fighter has to be an advocate because he or she needs that capability. They have to want it and they have to say that they want it, not begrudgingly." Aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. and engine provider Pratt & Whitney also should be vigorous marketers. "That's their business," he says. "It never bothers me when I hear that Lockheed Martin, Pratt and the other companies are out there marketing. That's what they're in business to do. I just want to make sure they're marketing with facts, and not overpromising so we can be fair to everybody."
At the Pentagon, part of the annual budget battles is over how many F-35s the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Navy will buy. Bogdan prefers to not weigh in on that issue. Although he has a personal opinion on whether the military services are buying enough airplanes, "It's not my job as program director" to shape that debate, he says.
Even in the unlikely event that the Pentagon decided to terminate its biggest weapon acquisition, it would be the duty of the program manager to follow orders and let others challenge that decision, he says. "If the department called me today and told me, 'Turn it off General Bogdan,' my job would be to turn it off as best as I could. It would not be my job to stand up and say 'Don't do that, that's not a good idea.'"
In his role as F-35 manager, he should not be the one to “pump up or pump down the program,” he says. “My job is to try to provide the best information I have so you can form your own opinions. … I work for the war fighters and I work for the taxpayers.”
Photo: An F-35B test aircraft executes a vertical landing to the deck of the USS Wasp (Lockheed Martin)