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Gates to Recommend Vice Admiral to Head F-35 Program

Lisa Daniel - American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2010 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will recommend that President Barack Obama nominate Navy Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, commander of Naval Air Systems Command, to oversee restructuring of the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter program, a Defense Department official told a congressional panel today.

Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, announced Gates' choice of Venlet as he described a five-point restructuring plan for the F-35 program to the House Armed Services Committee.

Gates announced last month that he would elevate the program's oversight to the three-star level to reflect the importance of the program to the future of military aviation.

The F-35 is the first aircraft to be developed to meet the needs of three services; the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps; and U.S. allies with variants being developed simultaneously by prime contractor Lockheed Martin. The F-35 is to replace the current F-15s, F-16s and F-18s, resulting in cost-savings and economies of scale not possible with maintaining separate aircraft.

Carter underscored the need to get the joint strike fighter on track in light of delays and cost overruns.

"The joint strike fighter is our largest, most critically important program," he said. "It's important to the three services and international partners to know if restructuring has placed us on a realistic and stable path."

The department initially ordered 2,443 of the jets, and eight foreign militaries purchased an additional 730, Carter said. But cost estimates have risen from $50 million per aircraft when the program was introduced in 2001, to about $95 million, he said.

Gates added $450 million to improve the program, but a study by Carter's office that began in November and was completed in January showed that the production line at Lockheed Martin's Fort Worth, Texas, plant still was taking too long and delaying flight testing by at least two years.

"It became clear in November of last year that [the joint strike fighter] would breach Nunn-McCurdy," Carter said, referring to a 1982 law that calls for termination of weapons programs when costs grow by more than 25 percent above original estimates. "This indicated to the department that we needed to take a more forceful management stance," he said.

As part of the restructuring plan, the department will reduce delays in the development and test schedule from 30 to 13 months by purchasing additional aircraft to add to testing, borrowing three operational test aircraft, and adding another software integration line, Carter said.

Also, the department will withhold $14 million from the contract "since it is not reasonable for the taxpayer to bear the full burden," he said.

Additionally, the department will reduce the concurrency of the development of the three variants, and will accept independent cost estimates as a basis for the program, Carter said.

"We believe this restructuring puts the [program] on a realistic path toward performance," he said.

J. Michael Gilmore, the department's director of operational test and evaluation, testified with Carter and told the committee he is concerned that the production stay on track to allow for adequate joint testing.

"My primary concern is that it be ready for joint testing to begin in 2015," he said, with a completion date in April 2016.

"It is less costly to discover problems early with a robust developmental test program," Gilmore said. The restructuring plan would ensure that adequate testing occurs, he added.

Despite the delays and cost overruns, Carter said, "no fundamental technical problems have surfaced, nor have the capabilities of the aircraft changed."

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