Living in the Breach
Pentagon officials are already acting as if the F-35 program has breached Nunn-McCurdy.
—Michael C. Sirak
March 2, 2010—The F-35 strike fighter program hasn't officially breached—yet—the Nunn-McCurdy provisions that monitor the costs of the Pentagon's major weapons programs. But Pentagon officials have already been acting that way, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told reporters Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
And that's a good state of mind, he said.
In fact, the F-35 program's restructure, which was announced in February, reflects "the mitigating and corrective action" that would be taken if there were an actual Nunn-McCurdy breach in effect, he explained.
The restructure essentially adds 13 months to the F-35's development and defers the ramp-up of production aircraft.
Per US law, Nunn-McCurdy breaches, if major in nature, trigger a review of a program to justify its continuation and to identify corrective actions to place it back on a healthy track.
Donley said it "is likely" that the F-35 program will officially incur a Nunn-McCurdy breach sometime soon. He was not sure of the details since the Pentagon is still "working through the mechanics."
But already the F-35 appears set on that healthy path with the restructure, he said.
However, these changes are not without their pain. Donley acknowledged, for example, what Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz hinted at Feb. 24 on Capitol Hill: the Air Force likely will not have its first combat-ready F-35A unit available until the end of calendar year 2015. That's two years or more later than the 2013 target date before the restructure.
"The number of airframes available in 2013, operational airplanes, was not going to sustain IOC" for the Air Force, said Donley.
Donley said, with the IOC slip, the Air Force will be looking this year at whether to perform a service life extension program on some number of F-16s.
"We haven't reached a judgment, but that is something that we are looking at."
Interestingly, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled the restructure plan on Feb. 1 and later that same week on Capitol Hill, he said the Air Force IOC date, as well as those of the Marine Corps and Navy, were holding, albeit with fewer aircraft delivered by then.
Asked about this, Donley said, when Gates spoke, DOD did not have the same insight as available now into the impact of the changes being instituted under the restructure.
"When the Secretary testified in early [February] ... we didn’t have that information," Donley explained. He continued, "We were still working through those issues."
In fact, "We are still working through all of the implications of the program adjustments," he said.
Donley characterized this transition process to the new baseline as engaging "a program management clutch."
He described the new IOC target date as "the best estimate we have today on where we will be." He declined to say what level of risk he associates with this new schedule.
And ultimately, he said, it's Air Combat Command's call when IOC would be.
Just last month ACC boss, Gen. William Fraser, said his people were re-evaluating the 2013 IOC target date. He said his focus in determining IOC was on ensuring the right amount of combat capability was in place and, thus, was not date-driven.
Donley said the Air Force hopes to be able to reinsert—as soon as possible—into future budgets some of the aircraft that have been deferred between Fiscal 2011 and Fiscal 2015 under the restructure. Overall the Pentagon removed a total of 122 F-35s from the three services' buys over that period.
"To the extent that we can incentivize better [contractor] performance, and get up the learning curve more quickly, we will try to buy back those 122 jets," he said.
Donley also reiterated that DOD remains "strongly committed" to the F-35 program.
The issues that it has faced are "typical of just about every flying machine you can think of" that has shifted from development into production, he said.
So far, he continued, "we have not seen any technical showstoppers" in terms of the aircraft's fabrication and performance in flight.
"Even on the software side, it is looking pretty good," he said.
Further, the F-35 represents "a whole different step in technology," said Donley.
"This is a fifth generation fighter attack capability," for which there "are no alternatives" today.
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