By Andrea Shalal-Esa
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Sept 17 The Air Force
general who runs the Pentagon's $392 billion F-35 program on
Tuesday said he was fairly optimistic the new Lockheed Martin
Corp fighter jet would survive the next round of U.S.
budget cuts, but said he was determined to continue lowering its
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan told the annual
Air Force Association conference the F-35 program was making
slow but steady progress, and that he saw strong continued
support from the U.S. military services and foreign partners.
Given that support, he said he no longer worried that the
F-35 program would be afflicted by a so-called "death spiral" in
which cuts in orders trigger rising prices that lead to further
cuts in orders and ultimately undermine the program.
"I do not think this program will suffer from that model. I
just don't think it will," Bogdan said, noting that he saw no
indication that the U.S. Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps planned
to significantly reduce their orders for the F-35 program,
despite mounting budget pressures.
The F-35 is designed to be the next-generation fighter for
decades to come for U.S. forces and their allies. The F-35
program, hit by technical faults, is several years behind
schedule and 70 percent above cost estimates.
In past years, Bogdan had expressed concern that budget cuts
in the United States and elsewhere could undermine the program
by unleashing the dreaded "death spiral." But over the past
year, Australia, Norway and other countries have redoubled their
commitment to the program, and U.S. officials have said they
will protect the program from further cuts.
On Tuesday, the program got more good news when the
Netherlands became the seventh country to make a firm commitment
to buying jets. More than half of the orders that will fuel a
hefty jump in production rates in coming years will come from
international buyers, Bogdan said.
Bodgan said the program had weathered mandatory
across-the-board budget cuts in fiscal year 2013 without losing
any planned jets, or development funding. While the outlook for
the coming year was less certain, senior Pentagon leaders were
committed to ensuring the program's continued survival, he said.
"Even if services were to move airplanes to the right and
lower our ramp rate, we still have the partners there that are
creating that upward ramp rate which is what we'll need
eventually to drive the cost of the airplane down," he said.
He said he expected industry to continue cutting the cost of
the plane in every production contract they signed. "You can
have to best airplane in the world ... but if nobody can afford
it, it does you no good," he said.
Bogdan, who took over as head of the Pentagon's biggest
weapons program in December, said communications between his
office and the companies building the jet - Lockheed and engine
maker Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp
- had improved greatly over the last year.
"The communication that my program office has today with
Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney is orders of magnitude
better than when I got here a year ago," he said, as top
executives from both firms nodded in agreement in the front row.
"When you start communicating and you start listening to
each other, you start find solutions to problems instead of
finding blame," he said.
Bogdan last year described relations between the government
and the companies building the F-35 fighter as the "worst" he
had ever seen in decades of working on major weapons programs.
Bogdan said he had seen great improvement in the
relationship this year, but the plane had also made progress in
flight testing, production and bringing costs down.
He said there were still areas that needed improvement,
including improving the reliability of airplane parts, but his
top concern was driving down the cost of the airplane.
Bogdan said the contractors had agreed to fund and set up a
"cost war room" to aggressively work on improving the longer-
term cost of producing and operating the new planes, mirroring
an approach taken by the Navy on its Virginia-class submarines.
Lorraine Martin, Lockheed's F-35 program manager, told
reporters the program had made "incredible progress" over the
past year on technical challenges with a complex helmet that
fuses data from the plane's sensors, the plane's ability to
survive lightning storms, software development and moving ahead
with a computer-based logistics and operating system.
She said the company was "pedalling" as fast as it could to
catch up on flight tests after delays linked to two
engine-related groundings earlier this year, and civilian
Lockheed and Pratt officials have also underscored their
focus on driving down the cost of the new jets.