Pawlikowski Says It’s Time For F-35 Variants to Evolve Along Service Lines

F-35As Lightning II assigned to the 33rd Fighter Wing sit on the flightline July 18, 2017, at Nellis AFB, Nev. The 33rd FW and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 from Yuma, Ariz., participated in the first combat exercise with Air Force F-35As and Marine Corps F-35Bs operating simultaneously during Red Flag 17-3. Air Force photo by SSgt. Peter Thompson.

In the interest of “speed and agility” in prosecuting their pieces of the National Defense Strategy, the services should now begin evolving their unique versions of the F-35, Air Force Materiel Command chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said Tuesday.

Speaking with defense reporters in Washington, Pawlikowski agreed with Pentagon acquisition, technology, and logistics chief Ellen Lord that “it’s time to start this transition” from one where the Joint Program Office oversees all of the services’ variants of the Joint Strike Fighter to service-specific program offices more tuned to the unique needs of their mission.

“I think the F-35 program office, over the last several years, has done a brilliant job” on focusing the program, reducing production costs, and getting the aircraft fielded, Pawlikowski asserted. However, she feels that given the size of the enterprise and getting the F-35 to “interact” with the other platforms and systems of each service means the Joint Program Office has become “too cumbersome” of an organizational structure.

“That said, I think we need to do this in a measured way,” added Pawlikowski. She said the contractual relationship with F-35 prime Lockheed Martin should not be broken “prematurely, and we need time for each of the services to build up their organic capability.”

It’s not a new concept for the Air Force, as Pawlikowski noted the service has had an “integration office” for the F-35 since 2014. She said then-Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh agreed that “we would eventually need to go beyond an integration office … into what we call a Fleet Management Office. And we have been in the early stages of looking at what that will look like.” Such an office’s initial focus will be sustainment issues, she said, and defining future USAF-specific capabilities on the F-35A.

“We’ll work with [Vice Adm.] Mat Winter [head of the F-35 JPO] and the F-35 team to make sure we do this seamlessly, with the objective of strengthening the effectiveness of the management structure to be responsive to what the Air Force needs from the F-35,” she said.

Asked if she thinks the original justification for making the F-35 a “joint” fighter—commonality-driven savings—will rapidly evaporate, Pawlikowski acknowledged there will be “more uniqueness” among the variants, but that commonality savings are largely already baked into the program.

“I don’t believe we’re throwing all of that away,” she said. “The basic design structure is already set. I think there will always be a benefit of the commonality that we have. But, … as we evolve the weapon system to be more responsive to the different missions” of each service, there will be service-unique weapons and other capabilities.

Still, given highly similar engines and other elements, “there is a benefit in that economy of scale that we are all benefitting from now that I think we will all want to continue to leverage.”