Bogdan Retires After Five Years at Helm of F-35 Program

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan talks with members of the F-35 Integrated Test Force during a first visit to Edwards AFB, Calif., Jan. 22, 2013. Bogdan last day as program executive officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office is May 25, 2017. Air Force photo by Paul Weatherman.

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan steps down from leadership of the F-35 program Thursday, after a tour of duty lasting five years. Even service Chiefs of Staff serve, at most, four years, so how did he manage it? In an exclusive exit interview with Air Force Magazine, Bogdan explained that a long-serving director was essential to both change the program’s corrosive culture, and to show competitive forces that they couldn’t “wait out” the PEO.

When the Joint Strike Fighter program was created back in the 1990s, it was structured so that every two years—to keep things fair—leadership of the program would swap between the Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps. When a USAF officer was the Program Executive Officer, he or she would report to the Navy’s service acquisition executive, and his or her deputy would be a Naval or Marine Corps officer. After two years, everything would flip.

Bogdan came to the program in 2012, and he credits his predecessor, Adm. Dave Venlet, with restructuring the program and putting it back on a footing so it could be successful. But both he and Venlet decided “that two years was not going to be enough” to turn things around.

“He and I went to the leadership” of the Pentagon and argued “we ought to change the charter, and the PEO ought to remain in place as long as the leadership wants them to be there,” Bogdan said. The two program leaders felt that “consistency of leadership, on a program this big and complex, is quite important. And if you really want to make changes, most of them have to start at the cultural change level. And that takes a long time.” He added, too, that “people have to know, both on the industry side and the government side, that they can’t wait you out.” After hearing the pitch, he said, Pentagon leaders agreed.

“I think I survived five years because my bosses tolerated a lot from me, to be quite honest with you,” Bogdan observed, admitting that his candor in public speaking engagements frequently exceeded the comfort level of his bosses. Members of Congress would frequently laud his “straight talk” about how the program was doing well—or not—and his thinking was that good news would be believed if he was also honest about the bad news. But the key thing was consistency, “of message, … of the way business was done, and a consistent voice to industry.” Bogdan added that “apparently, they liked what I was doing” because they told him to stay after two, three, and four years in the job.

“After that, I said, ‘okay, five is enough’ … And I appreciate them letting me go, now … I love the job, but I think it’s probably a good time in the program to let someone else take over.” That someone else is Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the program deputy, who will be promoted to vice admiral once confirmed by the Senate. Bogdan said the program is at a good transition point: “right near the end of development, production is well on its way to ramping up, we’re standing up the global sustainment solution.”

Bogdan said he has received hours of legal counseling from government lawyers explaining mostly who he can not work for after his retirement, which begins in June. “I have many restrictions,” Bogdan said. Generals must observe a “cooling off period” before they can do business with a government agency they used to work with or supervise in an official capacity, and “for me, that would be Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense], in any capacity … And then I have many unique restrictions from the defense industry point of view on what projects I can and can’t work on, and international. Those last anywhere from three to five years, and a few of them are even ‘lifetime.’”

Bogdan supervised as many as 1,300 suppliers, “three teammates on the Lockheed side, two engine [companies], a bunch of international participation.” He summed up, “Put it this way: the ethics lawyers earned their money as they were briefing me on the way out.”

For more coverage from our exclusive interview with Bogdan, read: F-35 Price Will Start Rising Again in About 2022; Five Years Later F-35 Relationship Better, But Trust Still Elusive; and Turning Points Convinced Bogdan F-35 Would Succeed.