There is nothing uncommon in big government programs experiencing problems, sometimes for years and even decades. What is unusual is a program that experiences rising costs, technical problems and production delays that comes roaring back. One such program is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. At one point, it appeared that the program was not going to succeed; then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even put the Marine Corps variant, the F-35B, on probation.
Now, the F-35 program is a virtual poster child for how to get a major government program back on track. The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, Under Secretary of Defense Frank Kendall, who once characterized the F-35 program as “acquisition malpractice,” has publicly stated that the tri-service program is now progressing smoothly toward an initial operational capability of the Marine Corps variant in 2015. Last year, the program surpassed 10,000 hours of flight testing, matching in less than a year the amount of airborne testing conducted in the previous six years. Half of the flight-test schedule has now been completed with no major problems identified, meaning that fears of commencing production before testing was completed have proven to be unfounded.
More significant, the costs for the program are coming down. The official estimate of the cost to buy 2,457 F-35 aircraft over three decades fell $4.94 billion (1.5 %) in the most recent Selected Acquisition Report. In what should have been a front page story, the 50-year sustainment costs for this fleet, once estimated to be $1.1 trillion in then-year dollars has dropped to $857 billion. When was the last time any government program actually achieved major cost reductions?
The fundamental key to success in large government programs is strong leadership, both by the private companies and the government. The F-35 program acquired this with the assignment of Lt. General Christopher Bogdan to the program in mid-2012, first as the Deputy and then, in late 2012, as the Program Executive Officer. General Bogdan had extensive experience in acquisition and came to the F-35 program after three years running the Air Force’s effort to acquire a new aerial tanker, the KC-46A. On the F-35 program, he established a reputation for being very tough and demanding results from the program’s participants. The companies involved in the program, principally Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney have also upped the game, devoting additional resources to fixing issues and shortening the development time line.
No surprise to anyone who follows large, complex government programs, software can be a big problem. That is why you want someone in charge who understands software development. It is also why you always want to devote a lot of time to testing before deploying. In the case of the F-35, government officials worked closely with the contractors to address the problem; the decision was taken to restructure the program, putting more money and time on the problem. As General Bogdan remarked recently, “software continues to remain our number one technical risk on the program, and we have instituted disciplined systems engineering processes to address the complexity of writing, testing and integrating software.” As a result, he is confident that the program will deliver the first operational software block for the rollout of the Marine Corps F-35 next year.
Given the challenges faced by Obamacare, first with the web site, HealthCare.gov, and with a number of state exchanges, but equally with the operation of the largest and most complex federal entitlement ever created, the Obama Administration might want to consider bringing in someone who has a proven track record of dealing with such a challenge. It is unlikely that all the developmental issues, including for software, are over. I would propose General Bogdan for the position of program manager for Obamacare. He has the experience of bringing the biggest defense acquisition program ever attempted back to life. With him in charge, Obamacare might actually succeed.
Find Archived Articles: