—John A. Tirpak
Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord holds a press briefing to update media on acquisition, reform, and innovation at the Pentagon, Aug. 26, 2019. DOD photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class James Lee.
The Pentagon’s decision to start full-rate production of the multinational F-35 fighter may be delayed from December to as late as January 2021, due to difficulties with integrating the jet into the Defense Department’s virtual wargaming system, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said Oct. 18.
During a press briefing at the Pentagon, Lord also discussed ways to inject competition in the likely single-bidder Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program and her goals for an upcoming visit to India, and called on Congress to pass a 2020 defense budget because of the harm a continuing resolution will do to ongoing programs.
She acknowledged that the F-35 won’t finish its operational test and evaluation by the end of 2019, which is the final step needed to clear the way for greater production numbers.
“I will not be making that decision in December,” Lord said of full-rate production approval. When asked if that call may not come until January 2021, she answered, “Potentially, yes.”
“We … just had signed out of the [Joint Program Office] earlier this week a program deviation report” of a “schedule threshold breach in the Milestone C full-rate production decision of up to 13 months,” Lord said.
She attributed the delay to slow progress adding the F-35 into the Joint Simulation Environment, a critical part of the fighter’s fielding process.
Lord and other acquisition leaders “have collectively decided that we need to get the JSE absolutely correct before we proceed” with Milestone C, she said. She added that she hopes to “shortly” make certain decisions about moving forward with full-rate production.
Although the Pentagon and F-35 builder Lockheed Martin have had a “handshake deal” on the next 478 F-35s for months, they are still negotiating a final agreement on an upcoming contract. Officials previously expected to have that in place by the end of 2019.
The OT&E program is otherwise doing well, Lord said.
“We’re moving forward with the program [and] the aircraft are performing exceptionally well,” she said. “We’re very excited about the progress, so it does not change what we’re doing on the production line, what we’re doing in development, or sustainment.”
Lord said nothing has changed regarding Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program in the time since the US began withdrawing troops from neighboring Syria and Turkey launched an invasion. Ankara is in the process of acquiring the Russian S-400 air defense system, which US officials argue cannot be used in conjunction with the Joint Strike Fighter.
Faced with the possibility that the US could cut Turkey off from American defense suppliers for its recent military actions, Lord said that the Pentagon is “working through those details.”
“Turkey still makes 900 parts for the F-35 and will continue to do so until Turkey’s F-35 supply chain responsibilities transfer at the end of March 2020,” she added.
It will be up to prime contractor Lockheed Martin to decide what companies will take over Turkey’s workshare, but the Pentagon previously said that no new countries will join the program as developmental partners. Japan had expressed a desire to do so, as the largest customer for the F-35 beyond the US.
Although Boeing has said it won’t bid on the GBSD program to replace the Air Force’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles—apparently leaving Northrop Grumman as the only bidder—Lord said there are other ways to harness the benefits of competition.
She argues that because the next-generation nuclear missiles are comprised of numerous significant subsystems, that opens the door for multiple possible suppliers on Northrop’s team.
“We’re using that information to inform us going forward, but I think it was a well-written [request for proposals] that will give us the insight we need,” Lord said.
But Northrop hasn’t submitted a proposal yet, so “nothing is finalized,” she added.
“We put in language so that we have visibility and transparency on cost and pricing, so we will be able to determine the value … of what’s being delivered,” she said.
Lord said she is traveling to New Delhi, India, the week of Oct. 20 to co-chair the ninth India-US Defense Technology and Trade Initiative meeting. She plans to discuss India’s current and potential defense imports, which Lord said has grown from zero to $18 billion since 2008.
“The US government granted India strategic trade authority Tier 1 designation last August … allowing US companies to export a greater range of dual-use and high-technology items to India under streamlined processes,” she said. “This grants India the same authorization as NATO allies, Japan, South Korea and Australia.”
Trade of defense assets will help the US, India, and others achieve their “shared vision” for the future of the Indo-Pacific region, she added, noting India’s new “willingness to engage.” The two countries are “developing some new capabilities together for production in India,” according to Lord.
Finally, Lord said the current continuing resolution—which caps federal spending at 2019 levels and restricts the work agencies can do on new projects—will “cause great damage to military readiness, disrupt our ability to modernize our strategic forces, including nuclear.”
‘I strongly urge Congress to pass a defense appropriations and authorization bill now so we can move forward on the many important programs needed to ensure our readiness and deter our adversaries,” she said.
Air Force Magazine previously reported the CR, which averts a government shutdown through Nov. 21, would affect the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, advanced helicopter training systems for the Navy and Marine Corps; and the B-52 bomber’s GPS upgrade program.
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