Air Force Studying How To Expand F-35 Role As Joint Program Office Recedes

The U.S. Air Force is exploring how it will oversee its share of the F-35 Lightning II program in light of the Defense Department’s recent decision to give the military services more control over the maturing fighter jet, an Air Force official said May 15.

The Air Force plans to set up an F-35 “fleet management office” and is in the “early stages” of looking at how that new entity will be organized, said Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, head of Air Force Materiel Command. 

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, head of Air Force Materiel Command (Air Force photo)

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, head of Air Force Materiel Command (Air Force photo)

The Air Force is coordinating its efforts with the overall F-35 team “to make sure that we do this seamlessly,” Pawlikowski told the Defense Writers Group.

Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord notified Congress in March that the F-35, which is currently managed by a joint program office (JPO), will eventually transition to service-run program offices (Defense Daily, April 4). The change is designed to give the services a greater role as the program ramps up to full-rate production, conducts follow-on development and implements long-term sustainment.

The Air Force office will oversee the F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing variant and a Marine Corps/Navy office will handle the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant and the F-35C carrier variant.

“I do believe that it is time to start this transition,” Pawlikowski said. While the JPO has done a “brilliant job” of driving down F-35 production costs in recent years, maintaining the current management structure as the number of aircraft mushrooms would be “too cumbersome," she asserted.

Pawlikowski cautioned that it will take time for the services to build up their capacity to oversee their respective portions of the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built F-35. In 2014, the Air Force set up an F-35 integration office, but that entity consists of only a small staff assigned to the Pentagon.

“I think we need to make sure that we do this in a measured way,” she said. “We have a contracting relationship with Lockheed that goes through [the JPO]. We need to make sure we maintain the benefits that we get from that and that we don’t break that relationship prematurely.”

While commonality will continue to be a key attribute of the F-35, as it is inherent in the plane’s basic design, Pawlikowski believes the variants could evolve differently to meet their unique roles. But the program will continue to benefit from economies of scale achieved by using many of the same components, such as the United Technologies Corp. [UTX] Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, she said.

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