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​An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet from the 6th We​apons Squadron lands at Nellis AFB, Nev., March 21, 2018. USAF photo by A1C Andrew D. Sarver.

The Defense Department, in accordance with a mandatory report sent to Congress this week, will eventually devolve management of the joint-service F-35 to the individual branches flying the jet, but not soon, according to Pentagon and Capitol Hill officials.

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, sent to Congress a report required under the Fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill to explain how the F-35’s management would be improved and possibly restructured. The report said that steps will be taken to put each service in charge of its own F-35 variant, rather than have a single Joint Program Office, as has been the case for the last 18 years.

Even though she said moves will be made “immediately” to improve F-35 management and the services will be given “more direct ownership” of the program as it pertains to them, “the Department will evaluate the right time to begin this transition,” according to the letter. No time certain for such a transition has been set.

Defense officials said there are “already” service representatives at the O-6 level involved with the program, and Lord’s new plan calls for program deputies at that level for each service, reporting to the JPO director, Vice Adm. Mat Winter. Eventually, those deputies will either become or report to service program managers for the F-35, each of which will have their own system program office. 

Those shifts will happen when the services are ready for them to happen, and won’t be calendar-based, Pentagon officials said. The Air Force and Navy already have their own F-35 integration offices.

The reason why the services have not led their own F-35 efforts thus far was to ensure that maximum commonality among the services and foreign partners was maintained through the end of the System Design and Development phase. Now that SDD is wrapping up, the services can more reasonably manage their own improvement programs and do the internal horse trading to fund various parts of their own fighter/attack portfolios.

One official involved with the F-35 said the JPO is “still essential as we transition to a deployed system and a normalized support apparatus,” and that some form of the JPO will still be necessary even after the services take on “the day-to-day management of their own variants” so the US can deal effectively with partner nations and FMS customers. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin has set up regional manufacture, maintenance, and repair facilities around the world to more efficiently sustain the F-35 fleet.

“Let’s be real about this,” the official said “These are three different airplanes, but if we hadn’t had the JPO … we’d have three very different airplanes by now,” and support costs would be “out of sight.” However, other officials said international relationships would likely shift to align with the services using the specific variants used by partner countries.    

Lord told Congress in the letter she envisions an Air Force office overseeing the conventional takeoff F-35A version and a Navy/Marine Corps office supervising the carrier/short-takeoff, vertical landing C and B variants, respectively.

The services are to start developing plans for the transition and creation of their own SPOs in the near-term. These will be evaluated by Lord’s office in an effort to make sure the change doesn’t cause the number of manpower positions devoted to F-35 management to soar due to duplication.

Asked for comment, the F-35 JPO said it “supports this initiative to ensure the Defense Department, US services, and our international partners have the most effective management structure to deliver warfighting capability. We are implementing improvements to increase transparency, and we'll continue to assess and evaluate the most efficient ways to support and manage this vital national defense program."​