Official seeks more realistic plan for fighter jet program

By Megan Scully

November 23, 2009

Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter said Monday he is working intensively with industry and defense officials to set more realistic cost and schedule goals for the high-stakes F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

During a roundtable session with reporters at the Pentagon, Carter said he has spent hours each day for the last several weeks, including high-level meetings on Saturday and Sunday, reviewing the program to determine its path forward.

The fighter jet -- of which the U.S. military plans to buy 2,400 planes from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. -- is the largest single program on the Pentagon's books and has been publicly labeled a priority by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Compared with the pricey F-22 Raptor fighter, which is nearing the end of its production run, the F-35 is billed as a low-cost but high-performing fighter.

But the program has been dogged by projections from the Pentagon's Joint Estimating Team warning of substantial cost overruns and schedule delays that differ widely from projections prepared by the joint program office, which forecasts more modest problems with the program.

"I'm working with the contractor and the program office to improve the realism of the cost and schedule that is in the program of record," Carter said.

He added that he believes the realistic plan for the program likely lies somewhere in between the two disparate estimates.

Having the two different views "reveals where the pressure points are, it reveals where the long poles in the tent are," Carter said. "It reveals the kinds of things that are holding up the schedule or costing money that we might actually do something about rather than just throwing money at them."

Carter would not discuss how big the divide is between the two estimates, but he said the JET's current projections tell a "substantially similar story of cost and schedule growth" as its 2008 analysis. That study projected that the F-35 would require two more years and $5 billion more in development than the program office had estimated.

The JET estimate, Carter said, is by no means "ridiculous" and has a solid, analytical basis that is informed by historical experience on other Pentagon programs.

"We have to do the best we can in terms of cost and performance," Carter said. "I will say that once we have an agreed, realistic plan that it's only reasonable for the government to hold those performing the program to that plan and I think that both the government side and the contractors involved understand that."

Carter said his work is being done under the "watchful eye" of Gates, who is emphasizing the need for defense programs to perform better during what is expected to be a more austere era of defense spending.

"We're entering a period in the Defense Department where we're not going to be enjoying double-digit year-on-year growth," Carter said. "I hope that we continue to enjoy real growth, but we need to be disciplined in how we shepherd resources and we need to manage programs and not just watch them or oversee them."

By Megan Scully

November 23, 2009