Clear of the Turbulence?

June 26, 2017

All three F-35 variants at Edwards AFB, Calif., in 2014. Left to right: the Navy F-35C carrier variant, USMC F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant, and USAF F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant. Photos: Lockheed Martin; DOD

The F-35 program appears to have emerged from years of controversy and developmental turbulence, but there are ways it could still go “off the rails,” according to Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, who retired in July after completing nearly five years of what was planned to be a two-year tour as the strike fighter program manager.

The F-35 program is slated to hit one of its biggest milestones—the completion of system design and development (SDD)—late this year, when it starts delivering the first F-35s in the Block 3F configuration. This version, finally, represents the baseline aircraft that fulfills the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy’s basic wartime needs. Those aircraft already serving operationally have earlier, transitional versions of the F-35 software and weapons capabilities. Bogdan said he thinks this move from development to full-up production makes for a good time to hand over the program to new leadership. He was succeeded by his deputy, then-Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter, after a May 25 ceremony.

In an interview with Air Force Magazine, Bogdan discussed major “turning points” that convinced him the massive effort would succeed, the state of the relationship between the Pentagon and its major F-35 contractors, and how he thinks the project will evolve in the future.

Asked what the biggest risks to the F-35 program are from here on out, Bogdan replied, “I am worried about our ability to sustain these airplanes globally, with the numbers and locations we’ll have in 10 to 15 years,” as “there’s going to be an awful lot of airplanes in an awful lot of places in an awful lot of configurations.”

The US services alone expect to buy more than 2,400 F-35s, and international partners and foreign military sales customers are expected to buy a similar number. There are already dozens of operating locations, worldwide, identified for the F-35. The 200-plus aircraft already delivered are in many different configurations and will all require modifications to bring them up to 3F standard. It will be a massive enterprise—even more so than the development effort—and both user governments and industry need to prepare themselves to cope with its demands.

The ability of industry and government together to “sustain all those airplanes and all those customers well, and do it affordably, is probably the biggest risk to the program right now,” Bogdan asserted.

Normally, a prime contractor leads the effort to choose its sustainment subcontractors, suppliers, and regional depots or repair facilities, but the F-35 is so politically and technologically complex that these “value judgments … cannot simply be left to industry,” Bogdan said. The US government, its partners, and the services all “need to be involved,” he said.

Because there are so many interim configurations of the F-35—across the three variants—there is a profusion of parts that only fit a specific batch of airplanes, and that’s a headache still plaguing the program, Bogdan said. Some of those parts “have moved on” to a new design, but earlier jets have yet to catch up through retrofit.

Not only that, some of the “pieces and parts” aren’t meeting reliability and maintainability goals. A fuel pump, for example, expected to stay on the jet 5,000 hours may only last 3,000 hours, leading to greater-than-expected maintenance. The depot enterprise to fix those parts isn’t fully up and running yet, forcing such components to go back to the vendor for repair. That, in turn, slows the delivery of brand-new parts.

“We know all the bad actors,” Bogdan said of this situation. “We need to continue to improve the on-wing time of those components.” Some may need a redesign because “the way we’re operating them is not quite what it looked like on paper.”

Healthy Skepticism

Taking over as director of the strike fighter in the fall of 2012, Bogdan had his doubts. The F-35 was way over budget and years behind schedule. In the press, it was always linked with descriptors such as “troubled” or problem-plagued.

He inherited the project from Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, whom Bogdan credits with giving the F-35 its chance to succeed. Venlet secured permission from Congress and the Pentagon to restructure the program—adding money and years to the timetable and setting a new schedule for fielding the jet. When Bogdan took over, he pledged that he would not ask for any more money or any more time to deliver the F-35.

Bogdan and Venlet realized at the outset that the structure of succession for program leadership wouldn’t work. To balance the needs of the two biggest customers, the Air Force and Navy were slated to swap leadership of the project every two years, with other levels interleaved with authority. Under the original vision, a Navy program executive officer (PEO) would have an Air Force deputy and answer to the Air Force acquisition executive. Two years later, the structure would flip.

They went to the Pentagon leadership and argued that “we ought to change the charter” because repairing the culture of the dysfunctional program would take time, Bogdan recalled.

“Consistency of leadership” was critical, he said, along with consistency of message to Congress, the partners, and industry. Moreover, “people have to know, both on the industry side and the government side, that they can’t wait you out.” The two-year leadership rule was changed so that the PEO could stay “as long as the leadership wants them to be there.” He was gratified that at the two-, three-, and four-year points, “apparently, they liked” what he was doing because Bogdan was asked to stay in the job. Five years, though, he thought was “enough.”

“I appreciate them letting me go now,” he said.

Bogdan admitted, “I broke some glass” on taking over the project. At the 2012 AFA annual conference, he declared the relationship with Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s prime contractor, to be “the worst I’ve ever seen,” and he warned that cultural changes were due. The comment, he said, was “my shot across the bow to tell everybody” that a shake-up was due.

In the months that followed, Bogdan tightened up the program office and held contractors’ feet to the fire. In staff meetings, when one of his officers presented news of a technical problem, if it was the fault of a vendor, Bogdan would ask, “What do we say?” and would answer his own question as he had many times: “We’re not paying for that.”

Things started to improve. Airplanes were delivered, and pilot training got underway. The pace of flight testing edged up. Costs stabilized and began to decline. Schedules started to be met. But Bogdan was keenly aware that with 1,300 vendors, four major prime contractors, three services, eight international partners, and over 10 million lines of programming, the F-35 was a massive cat-herding job and perpetually just one crisis away from termination.

In June 2014, it looked like that crisis might have arrived. During takeoff roll for a training flight, an F-35 at Eglin AFB, Fla., caught fire on the ground. The pilot quickly escaped and no one was injured, but the airplane was badly damaged, the fleet had to be grounded, and the program’s head of steam seemed to evaporate.

The fire “was a very big deal and it happened at a very bad time,” Bogdan said. The fire embarrassingly canceled the F-35’s planned premiere at the Farnborough International Air Show in the UK, then only days away.

The Joint Program Office (JPO) worked 24/7 to identify the cause of the fire, fix the problem, and get the show rolling again. Over a few months, the problem was figured out—engine fan blades rubbing excessively in a groove—aircraft were allowed to return to flight (with more frequent inspections) and a fix was developed.

“That was really the first time,” Bogdan said, that he thought the program would really come together and make good. “From a technical perspective, … I thought, ‘Hmmm, we’re probably getting better.’?”

Bogdan gained more confidence from solving problems with the F-35 pilot’s helmet, which he described as a key sensor of the airplane. He broke with Venlet’s approach, canceling an alternative source competition. Rockwell Collins and Elbit, the helmet contractors, realized “I was putting my chips” on them, he said, and that told them “they better get this thing solved.” His gesture of confidence “changed their attitude” and “helped them come up with better solutions.”

The arrestor hook for the Navy version didn’t work. “We couldn’t trap anything” with the original hook design, Bogdan recalled, and “from the Navy’s point of view, if you cannot land on an aircraft carrier, you don’t have a C model.”

It was a credit to Lockheed Martin, he said, that “they let us” hand over redesign authority for the system to Fokker, builder but not designer of the hook. This third physical correction convinced Bogdan that the JPO could solve any problem, expeditiously.

Big Bang Theory

Software is the hobgoblin of any major modern weapon system, and Bogdan rolled his eyes at the thought that the original planners of F-35 development expected the final, 3F version of the software would magically materialize without any hiccups or interim steps. He decried the “Big Bang Theory” of acquisition, describing it as: “I’m going to take all these huge requirements and I’m going to build one single program from start to end, and in the end, I’m going to deliver you everything you want in one fell swoop.”

It’s a “terrible strategy,” Bogdan said, and it “never, ever, ever works.”

Early program managers aimed to go right for the all-up baseline software, an approach Bogdan recognized wouldn’t succeed.

“You’ve got to build up, you’ve got to do things in increments,” he said. “You’ve got to give the warfighters something to use and have that feedback loop of improving and learning.” This applies to hardware and software alike, he insisted, and with additive increments, “you’ll actually go faster in the end. And you’ll get a better weapon system—my belief.”

There’s resistance to this approach from the user, Bogdan said, because the user fears “that if you run out of money, someday, all he’s going to get is this increment.” The “warfighter … really wants increment five in the endgame, so he’s really nervous about taking increment one, two, [or] three.”

There’s also resistance to this approach from financial managers and comptrollers, Bogdan continued. “They want to know, how much is the whole program going to cost, from end to end. And sometimes it’s really hard to estimate” several increments away. Congress is hard to convince, too, because the building-block approach may result in early iterations having “actually less capability than the system out there that it’s trying to replace. And it’s a very hard sell to Congress to continue to put up money to field a weapon system that is not an immediate improvement over what’s out there now.”

The poster child for this last situation is the Electro-Optical Targeting System, or EOTS, Bogdan said. The initial version of the EOTS was design-frozen so that the systems tied into it could develop and mature. In the meantime the Sniper pod used by fourth generation jets became better than the first version of EOTS. (The internal EOTS on F-35 is expected to surpass Sniper in capability during the Block 4 program of F-35 improvements.)

“There’s a lot of institutional resistance to what some people call ‘spiral.’ I call it the ‘incremental acquisition strategy,’?” Bogdan said. But every program he’s run that started out as a Big Bang was always turned into incremental, he said, “because that was the smarter way to do business.”

Bogdan credits the SDD program with finishing on time because he ordered work stopped on the 3F version of the software. He told code writers to concentrate on the 3i version that equips the first operational Air Force F-35As. The 3i software had terrible instability, he reported—pilots frequently had to shut down the jet several times to reboot because sensors and the radar were shutting themselves off.

“Forget 3F for now,” he told the team. “We’ve got to fix 3i. Because if you don’t get 3i right, you don’t get 3F.” Bogdan said there was “a lot of pushback” from the contractors, worried about schedules and progress payments. Experts from other services and even other contractors—competitors to the Lockheed team, who signed nondisclosure agreements—were brought in to help size up the issues and get things back on track. Again, Bogdan praised Lockheed Martin for being “willing and open” to bringing in experts from outside to help look at the problem.

Operational USAF F-35 pilots have recently reported good software stability with the 3i build, saying after deployments within the US and to Europe that it was never an issue.

“That was a turning point, also,” Bogdan noted, “because once we got that fixed, then I knew 3F was going to be OK. I knew we could get through the end of SDD.”

Common Ground and IOC

Besides the technical turning points, Bogdan pointed to two other events that told him the F-35 would succeed. One was programmatic: the contracts struck with Lockheed Martin on Low-Rate Initial Production Lots 6, 7, and 8. These went “a lot smoother” than Lot 5, which he said “took forever.” Both the JPO and Lockheed Martin felt “it was a win-win” deal, and this agreement persuaded him that “we could do business with Lockheed. … We could find a way to find common ground.”

Another was the way the program reached initial operational capability. The Marine Corps reached IOC in July 2015 and the Air Force in August 2016, certifications that the services had enough jets, parts, and trained personnel to go to war if needed. In both cases, IOC was declared within days of the target date. This was a huge vote of confidence in the program and had a palpable effect on it, Bogdan said.

If IOC had slipped well beyond the target period, it would have “set the program back years,” Bogdan said. There would have been “way more scrutiny and oversight” from the Pentagon leadership, international partners, and Congress, he contended. “Now you had the warfighter showing confidence in the weapon system,” he said, observing that line pilots and maintainers could “learn the most and teach us the most about the airplane, and we needed that desperately. We needed their feedback to make this weapon system better, and the sooner that happened, the better off we were.” The IOC declarations moved the F-35 from being “a paper airplane” with “a lot of bad history and bad baggage” into something real and allowed outside observers to start “getting a glimpse at how good the airplane could be.”

Has the relationship with Lockheed Martin evolved from that “worst I’ve ever seen” comment at the outset of Bogdan’s tour

It’s “better, but not good enough,” he said. There’s still “a trust deficit,” both on the part of the government and that of industry.

On the government side, “we’re still skeptical” that in some instances industry would put the combatant first, over anything else. Conversely, he suspects that industry doesn’t trust the government, worried “we’re going to take business away from them, in the long term.”

That last fear, Bogdan thinks, stems from Lockheed’s concern that more and more of the F-35 enterprise—maintenance support, repair, logistics, training—will be done by the government or will be put out for competition. He said that is the “natural evolution of every acquisition program I’ve ever seen, especially for airplanes, is that we do move a lot of stuff organically,” with USAF doing more work in-house. The service has also been pushing in recent years to “own the technical baseline” of programs so it can compete upgrades.

None of this is “to punish industry,” Bogdan explained. Organic support costs less, and sometimes industry “has moved on to something else” and is no longer able to offer support.

“On this program, everyone would be better served if we recognize [the evolution to organic support] and plan for it. And I don’t think we have a good-enough relationship to do that yet.”

How could that trust be improved? Bogdan said, “Over time, your actions and the way you behave and the things you do will engender trust. It’s not something you can just talk about and have it change right away. You’ve just got to do things for each other and with each other that just build it up.”

Can it Go Any Faster

Air Force leaders in recent years have urged an acceleration of the F-35 to beef up fighter squadrons that have dwindled and are now too few in number to meet all the service’s commitments worldwide. Could the F-35 be sped up

“We could go faster,” Bogdan allowed. However, “I think you’ll find that [the ramp-up in production is] probably just from Hill about right.” He said the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and the international partners “recognize that for a finite period of time”—possibly 20 years—they are going to have fourth generation and fifth generation airplanes in their fleets, and learning to operate them together is going to be “pretty important.”

The services and partners will have to retain fourth gen fighters for a while “for presence and deterrence.” It may not be feasible to “get rid of fourth gen very, very quickly at the expense of adding fifth gen airplanes,” and “there’s an affordability factor, too, that you have to think about.”

Moreover, although SDD is drawing to a close, the airplane “is still modernizing,” Bogdan said. After operational test and evaluation, “we will have some things we find and want to fix.”

Finally, a big, unplanned uptick in production could harm the supply system. More foreign military sales customers are likely to join the program, though, and that should drive costs down even further, though perhaps straining the ramp rate.

Volume has a lot to do with unit costs, the real savings will come in knocking down sustainment costs, Bogdan said, and while they’re “trending in the right direction,” they are “clearly not going down as fast as we want.”

The goal, by the mid-2020s, is to have a sustainment cost about par with that of fourth gen fighters, he said. As more aircraft come to a standard configuration, parts supplies will improve, and the program is leaning hard on getting parts to stay on wing longer. The quality issues are largely “out of the picture,” he said, but the program is still learning about the servicing rate for some parts, and a “robust repair” capability wasn’t built for them. “So we missed the boat a little bit on which ones.”

Bogdan said the F-35 can look forward to a healthy upgrade program, as engineers seek to improve its stealth, reliability, and electronic warfare capabilities and add new weapons. He said it’s virtually a “guarantee” that the Air Force’s new engine technology initiative will yield either components, engine sections, or all-new engines that will improve the F-35’s “efficiency, thrust, range, and reliability.”

The price of the baseline F-35 will “absolutely” dip below $79 million in 2020—and “in 2020 dollars,” including the engine, Bogdan said.

Improvements will come in the 2022-28 time frame, and collectively, they’re “going to cause the airplane to cost more in the future.” The upgraded F-35 will be more adaptive to the environment that it fights in, Bogdan said, and new weapons will have to be developed for it because “what we’ve found out is, this airplane has such tremendous sensor capability, that we now have to make sure the weapons that go with [it] can use it. And I’ll just leave it there.”