Vice Adm. David Venlet was just about to hang up his Navy blues as chief of Naval Air Systems Command in the summer of 2010, ready to decompress from the hectic world of Defense Department acquisition by engaging in his favorite hobby: fishing.
Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates came calling.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the largest defense program in Pentagon history, was without a leader. The Government Accountability Office has pegged the program at nearly $400 billion in acquisition and development costs for 2,443 Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps jets. On Feb. 1, 2010, Gates had announced at a Pentagon press briefing that he was dismissing the JSF’s program manager and replacing him with a three-star officer at some point. After a few months, the Pentagon announced Venlet would be that officer, and the soft-spoken Pennsylvania native and former F-14 Tomcat pilot decided he’d better put his retirement plans on hold.
“I looked in the mirror and I saw there was still a uniform there,” he says with a wry smile at JSF’s headquarters, a few blocks from the Pentagon. “There was really little to no hesitation.”
Venlet has deep roots in military aviation, but he soon may get his wish to do more fishing. On Aug. 2, the Pentagon announced President Obama had nominated Air Force Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, Venlet’s deputy, to succeed him as head of the F-35 program.
Getting the Joint Strike Fighter effort back on track certainly has been a challenge for Venlet.
The F-35 has had a troubled 15-plus year history since Lockheed Martin Corp.’s X-35 bested Boeing’s X-32 in a high-stakes, head-to-head competition to build the United States’ future strike fighter fleet. The Defense Department wanted three variants of the aircraft: the F-35A conventional takeoff Air Force jet; the F-35B short-takeoff, vertical-landing Marine Corps jet; and the F-35C carrier-based Navy variant.
Back then, Pentagon officials believed they could buy the jets at a cost of about $233 billion. But they soon encountered a major problem: concurrency. Essentially, to achieve the schedule goals Defense had set, they’d have to build aircraft before flight testing even started, meaning that any glitches encountered during testing would cause major production problems. That in turn would lead to schedule delays and cost growth. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s chief of acquisition, Frank Kendall, called the concurrency approach an example of “acquisition malpractice.”
The result was plenty of outrage from lawmakers. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the F-35’s most vocal critics, has repeatedly lambasted Pentagon officials in Senate Armed Services Committee hearings over the years, which often focused heavily on the F-35, even when all defense programs were under consideration. In March 2010, when a Pentagon official argued the truncated Air Force F-22 fighter program came through its troubles, offering hope for the F-35, McCain pounced.
“I’m astonished you would use that as some kind of success story, because they overcame technical problems,” he said. “But the unit costs almost doubled, or more.”
At that same February 2010 briefing, Gates announced another bombshell: He would place the F-35B variant, which was particularly tricky due to the complexity of a vertical-lift fixed-wing aircraft, on probation and recommend killing it if problems weren’t resolved within two years. By any measure, Venlet had his hands full when he finally took the job that summer.
When Gates met with him, he made it clear that time was running out to steady the program.
“The thing I recall from that conversation was the description—he used his finger like on a clock, and he said, ‘Dave, we’ve made small corrections and adjustments to the program over recent years, and those small adjustments have continued to disappoint,’ ” Venlet says. “He said, ‘If you assess a large adjustment is needed to the program, please bring that forward and tell me, and we’ll make it so it doesn’t disappoint again.’ ”
The Real Thing
Two years after Venlet’s appointment, the F-35 program is showing some signs of stability, at least in initial testing. The program was about 15 percent ahead of its planned test schedule by the end of 2011, and is ahead by an even larger margin so far this year. In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the F-35B had been removed from probation, because officials had identified fixes for issues on the aircraft.
But Venlet knows that with production numbers still low and much testing to be done, it’s too early to trumpet the aircraft’s successes. In fact, the services won’t even announce new projected fielding dates for the F-35 until later this year. The dates were supposed to be 2012 for the Marines and 2016 for the Navy and Air Force before delays pushed those projections at least two years into the future.
Years of struggle and the debacle of concurrency have prompted many of the F-35’s fiercest critics to cite it as an example of gross mismanagement. Venlet argues a program of this size with such revolutionary technology is destined to have struggles along the way and maintains his predecessors laid the groundwork for the recent testing successes. He said when Defense came up with a new baseline for the program in 2010, it set the aircraft on a realistic path in an achievable time frame.
Still, Venlet knows it’s time to put up or shut up.
“There’s no tolerance for more money or more time,” he says. “I think [a new baseline in 2010] was the last adjustment that the program was going to get, so now we have to manage the program with the resources we’ve got knowing there is no more to come. And as we face challenges along the way, we will have to solve anything we discover within the boundaries of our current resources and time.”
Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president and general manager of F-35 program integration, says the reason the program has been ahead on flight tests is the new timeline is fairly conservative, providing opportunities to get ahead of schedule and thus offer some cushion in case of a major problem, such as a temporary grounding of the fleet to address an urgent issue.
“I read every flight report every night, and we’re between five and eight flights per day,” he says. “I think we haven’t required all the re-fly rates we projected.”
The program finally has begun seeing some of the fruits of its labor. The long-awaited sea trials for the F-35B Marine Corps vertical-lift variant took place last year aboard the amphibious ship USS Wasp. “There was some uncertainty how that was going to come off,” Venlet says. “And that sea trial, to see that operate so successfully . . . you can’t fake that. That wasn’t done in a TV studio. That was the real thing.”
Although the United States will be by far the largest buyer of the F-35, other nations will be flying the jet once it becomes battle-ready. Eight partner nations have participated in funding the research and development of the aircraft: the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia,
Denmark and Norway. Beyond those partners, Japan and Israel have signed on to buy some of the jets, and South Korea will consider the F-35A in its own competition going on right now.
One of the reasons Defense and its international partners have stuck with the program despite its problems and price tag is the aircraft’s much-touted “fifth-generation” capabilities. Fifth-generation jets are designed to be stealthier than current fourth-generation aircraft, such as the Navy’s carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Unlike the Super Hornet, an F-35 can carry its weapons stores internally, reducing its detectability on radar. The aircraft is more automated, reducing the workload on the pilot.
“The computing power on the airplane is so high now, the airplane systems can monitor their own health,” Burbage says.
But many question whether such advancements are worth the price tag that comes with the F-35, particularly when most countries are cutting back. Defense’s fiscal 2013 budget item justification sheets, which accompany the president’s annual budget request, list the average unit cost from fiscal 2014 to the end of the program as $116 million per aircraft for the F-35A, $169 million for the F-35B and $150 million for the F-35C. By comparison, the unit cost for a possible alternative to the F-35C, the Super Hornet, is $86 million per aircraft.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, director of research and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says while he doesn’t advocate doing away with the program altogether, the United States doesn’t need as many fighters as it is buying and would save a lot of money by making steep cuts in the program. “I’d size it to be able to populate most of our major bases in East Asia for the possibility of a Taiwan contingency,” he says.
The United States won’t need the fighter for much else, O’Hanlon argues. He recommends cutting the program in half and possibly canceling the Navy variant altogether, opting to go back to buying Super Hornets for now.
The program’s international partners have been skittish in recent years. Australia joined the United States in delaying orders, while Italy and the Netherlands have cut back on their planned purchases. Venlet has taken on the responsibility of not only keeping other nations from jumping ship, but also reassuring U.S. lawmakers and even Pentagon top brass that the program is worth it. He acknowledges “it’s undeniable” that he spends a lot of time acting as an ambassador for the F-35. “The program needed a restoration of trust . . . That includes Congress, partner countries and Pentagon leadership.”
Venlet says he has endeavored to be completely transparent and that partner nations have personnel embedded in the program so no one is left out of the loop. So far, that list of partner nations hasn’t shrunk. “None of them are making any noises or signals of leaving the program,” he says. “I certainly respect the debates that go on in each of the countries, and as time passes, they need to answer tough questions being asked, and we are completely supportive of them.”
There’s also the task of maintaining a healthy relationship with manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The company has been hammered by critics over the years for its role in the rising costs and schedule delays. “I believe we’ve got a common view of the task ahead of us now,” he says.
Burbage has known Venlet for decades. They are both graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and served on the same ship, albeit at different times. He says he and Venlet meet on a regular basis and have an understanding going forward on what the program needs to do to get back on track over the coming years. Venlet’s persona is just what the program needed, he adds.
“He’s an even-mannered and even-tempered guy, so he’s pretty hard to rattle, to get excited,” Burbage says.
Test of Time
As for the future, the program must keep hitting test points and quietly build up successes, Venlet says. The main obstacles include software development. Most of the software is written, but the effort is facing its most challenging phase: integration with the aircraft. Program managers are looking ahead to taking the F-35C out to an aircraft carrier in the next year or two and demonstrating greater and greater flying capabilities in tests of all three variants.
Sustainability costs remain an issue. The program expects to spend $1.5 trillion over the life of the aircraft to sustain the jets until they leave service. Burbage says the number may seem big, but is comparable to legacy aircraft. Venlet acknowledges, however, the program has to find ways to drive costs down.
“There are clearly things that we are able to do, levers we’re able to pull, on how we go about sustaining [the F-35]—where we put them, how many bases we put them at,” he says. “We’re trying to optimize all the aspects of sustainment for the United States and 10 other countries.”
The Pentagon should take lessons from the history of the JSF and apply them to future or ongoing programs, Venlet says, because the program demonstrates the importance of having a solid foundation from the start rather than working out significant design issues while building the aircraft.
“The reform that’s needed, from my experience, is a commitment to sound fundamentals that stand the test of time,” he says. “It’s like building a house: If the foundation is square and level, you can build walls that will last a long time. The surprises, then, are contained in the normal test stuff.”
The program has a long way to go, and it will take a lot of work to fully restore trust and field a battle-ready aircraft. But he believes if the program is able to “quietly perform” and build up success after success, then perhaps even the biggest skeptics will climb aboard the F-35 bandwagon. “We don’t have to beat the drum and flash the lights every time we complete a test point,” he says. “Let’s just keep doing it and they accumulate over time.
“Someday, we’ll turn around and say, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of these F-35s around, and they’re working pretty good.’ ”
Dan Taylor is managing editor of Inside the Navy.