NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Impending changes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter management structure are a natural result of the program moving from development to production and the jets becoming operational both in the United States and around the world, according to Joint Program Office Chief Vice Adm. Mat Winter.

“As we look forward, every weapon system in the United States at some point has changed its program office management structure to reflect the realities of the program phase,” Winter said April 11 at the Navy League’s annual Sea-Air-Space conference here. “The current F-35 enterprise program phase is not like any other program office that I have been associated with. We will be in full sprint in development, production and sustainment for the next 20 years.”

Hill Air Force Base F-35As fly in formation over the Utah Test and Training Range, March 30, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)
Hill Air Force Base F-35As fly in formation over the Utah Test and Training Range, March 30, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)

So far, more than 280 F-35s in three variants have been delivered to the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and international partners in the program like the U.K., Israel and Australia, Winter said. System development demonstration testing on the aircraft and its attendant systems is set to conclude sometime this week, marking a major milestone toward a full-rate production decision, he said. 

The program suffered a setback the same day Winter spoke at SAS when Reuters reported that the government is has suspended receipt of the jet from Lockheed Martin [LMT] because of corrosion found where the jet’s carbon fiber outer skin joins the airframe. Deliveries were halted for about a month last year when the corrosion was discovered. The current delivery halt is the result of a dispute over who will pay to fix the problem, which will require costly deployment of Lockheed Martin personnel worldwide to where the jets are stationed, according to reports.

Winter did not mention the delivery halt during his Navy League appearance. 

The dispute is the latest in a litany of costly development delays the program has suffered since its inception. Those delays forced the JPO to rebaseline the program in 2010 after which the government and Lockheed Martin have instituted a number of cost-reduction initiatives and efficiency plans. 

Congress in fiscal 2017 directed the Defense Department to perform a study on the efficiency of the F-35 Joint Program Office management structure. An independent study was performed by a third-party contractor chosen by the Secretary of Defense that reached out to all the stakeholders including all three U.S. services buying the jet, international partners and industry, Winter said

“That direction came based upon the behaviors and the environment that existed before 2017,” Winter said.

The findings of that report were presented to former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who did not act on them before the Trump administration installed Jim Mattis as the senior DoD civilian.

“The new administration took the prudent time to review that report and understand the underpinnings of that report,” he said.

Ellen Lord, who recently became the first Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, on March 27 issued a memo that directed a reorganization of F-35 management under service-specific program offices instead of a unified JPO. The memo stated that eventually, an 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. 

“In order to effectively integrate and sustain the F-35 in the joint force, the military departments must have more direct ownership of the F-35 program and leverage organic capabilities, processes and infrastructure,” the letter says.

Winter said many of the directives laid out in Lord’s cover memo, which he described as “infamous” after media extensively reported on its implications for the historically rocky program, were already underway before the letter became public. Ultimately, the Defense Department wants to ensure “that the JPO management structure will continue to be the most efficient and effective to design, deliver, produce and sustain the F-35 air system into the future,” Winter said.

“The infamous cover memo that has specific areas of direction and pursuit that the program and the partnership and that the Department of Defense will pursue is underway,” Winter said. “The majority of those elements are either incorporated or being incorporated because they make sense.”

Lord’s memo called for appointing Air Force and Marine Corps colonels and a Navy captain to be “service deputies” in the JPO. The services each have a deputy program director already working within the JPO, Winter said.

“The migration of the program office, the appropriate skillsets, the organizational alignment and how we will execute that will continue to mature and be assessed every year,” he added. “That is the direction I’ve been given. That’s what the cover memo intent is and that’s what we’re executing today.”