Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England has written an unusually blunt critique of how the Obama Pentagon is managing the military’s biggest weapons program. The full-page essay appearing in this week’s Defense News essentially accuses the Obama defense team of incompetence, contrasting the slow progress of the tri-service F-35 fighter with its highly regarded predecessor, the F-16. Most of the F-35s being built for domestic and foreign use will replace F-16s that have received high marks for price and performance. However, former Secretary England says that by ignoring the lessons of the F-16, the Obama Administration has greatly increased the cost of the F-35, undermining its plan for saving money and delaying its operational availability.
The core of England’s complaint is that senior administration officials are excessively concerned with “concurrency,” the practice of overlapping development with initial production. His commentary argues that in order to save relatively small amounts of money on retrofitting planes found to have developmental issues, policymakers have cut 426 F-35s from the five-year spending plan in just the last two budget cycles, driving up the price of the remaining planes and adding tens of billions of dollars to future program costs. “The result,” he says, “is that the overall savings originally expected of the F-35 program in terms of higher production rates and faster fielding are not being realized.”
England recommends that F-35 decision-making be taken out of the hands of “well-intentioned but misguided financial analysts,” and vested more in the leaders of the three military services that ultimately will operate the plane — the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. He also attacks the defense department’s testing community for saddling the next-generation fighter with excessively detailed and lengthy flight tests stretching over nearly a decade. The former number-two Pentagon official concludes, “the F-35 is being artificially confined to low production rates at a point when the F-16 was already roaring ahead.”
England’s critique will carry unusual weight because he was a key player in the F-16 program while serving as an industry executive, and then played a similarly important role in shaping the F-35 program as a public official — first as Secretary of the Navy, then as Deputy Secretary of Defense. Although his commentary does not name names, it will be interpreted as a criticism of current deputy secretary Ashton Carter, who has spent most of his time in the Obama Administration as the head of defense acquisition and led successive restructurings of the F-35 program. Carter has made no secret of his desire to succeed Leon Panetta in the Pentagon’s top job, but there has been grumbling almost from the day he arrived that he did not understand the consequences of policies he and key subordinates were espousing.
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