F-35 chief: ‘This program is not out of control’

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Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, address the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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US Air Force photo

ARLINGTON, Virginia – “This program is not out of control,” Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, head of the F-35 Joint Program Office, told Business Insider when asked for the main misconception about the embattled fighter program that he wanted to leave behind in 2017.

Asked to expand, Bogdan continued:

“Since 2011 we have basically been on schedule, since 2011 we have basically been on budget, we are delivering now today, 50 plus airplanes a year that when in the hands of the warfighter make a huge, huge difference. Don’t ask me about that, go ask the warfighters … They want this airplane, they need this airplane they are embracing what this airplane can do for future air combat.”

The F-35 Lightning II, valued at an acquisition cost of $379 billion, has become one of the most challenged programs in the history of the Department of Defense. It has experienced setbacks that include faulty ejection seats, software delays, and helmet display issues.

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An F-35A Lightning II team parks the aircraft for the first time at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Feb. 8, 2016.
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US Air Force photo

“I have no doubt that given the controversy on the F-35 program over the years, that there is a perception that this program is out of control,” Bogdan said during a December 19 briefing with reporters, just days after President-elect Donald Trump tweeted criticism of the program.

“I think that this program is vital for air dominance for us and our allies for the next 5o years. It replaces many, many, many legacy fleets, it has tremendous international participation and involvement, and it is a necessary program for the United States to maintain its security,” Bogdan added.

Trump and his transition team were not briefed by the F-35 Joint Program prior to the tweet, which earned 16,000 retweets and 60,000 likes. The message also sent defense giant Lockheed Martin’s stock down from $251 at opening bell to $245.50, before it rebounded to a little more than $253 a share.

Since the December 12 tweet, Trump’s team has asked for a briefing about the program, though nothing has been scheduled yet.

“If given the opportunity I would like to try and explain to the new administration that this is a vastly different program from 2011,” Bogdan said. “I’ll just lay the facts out on the table and I’ll let them make their own judgments because I don’t think the program cost wise is out of control nor do I think that it’s out of control schedule wise.”

“The problems on this program quite frankly in the past were very simple. We were overly optimistic in the technical risk in building this leading edge fighter and so we put unrealistic schedules and budgets together and then when we ran into problems we did not manage them very well.”

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A view of the F-35 production line at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

On Monday, the F-35 Joint Program Office released the finalized price for the most recent production contract for America’s fifth generation stealth fighter. The ninth Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP-9) contract for 57 F-35 jets was valued at $6.1 billion.

In LRIP-9, the price of the Air Force and Marine Corps’ variants saw a reduction of $5.9 million and $2.4 million respectively, the Navy model saw an increase of $3.2 million.

“Why did that happen?” Bogdan, asked. “That happened because in lot nine the Navy bought two C models and in lot 8 the Navy bought four models.”

“So they cut their production in half and as a result of that when you do an economies of scale in one direction it hurts you in the other direction. Having said that, I fully anticipate that when we do settle LRIP 10 you’ll see all three variants, the A, the B, and the C come down in price significantly,” Bogdan said.

And by “significantly” Bogdan added that he believes “somewhere on the order of 6 to 7 percent per airplane, per variant.”

The 57 fighters in LRIP-9 are in various stages of production at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas and are slated to begin delivery in the first quarter of 2017.

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Israel’s first F-35A Lightning II fighter jet is revealed during a ceremony.
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Lockheed Martin

What’s more, Bogdan is confident international clients will continue to invest in the fifth-generation stealth platform.

“I think many of our partners just like the US services have an awful lot riding on them getting F-35s,” Bogdan told Business Insider.

“Many of them are replacing their entire fighter fleets with F-35s. I am not sure that there are too many fallback options for them or for us and therefore I think that we will not see any wavering by our partners,” Bogdan said.

“In fact, we just saw Israel add 17 airplanes, we just saw Denmark make their decision, we will wait to see how Canada plays out, we know we are courting other FMS (foreign military sale) customers as we speak, so I don’t think that will be an issue.”

To date, the F-35 program is supported by eight partner countries; Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the UK. In addition, Israel, Japan, and the Republic of Korea – all FMS customers – plan to purchase planes.