UPDATED: Vice Adm. David Venlet, NAVAIR commander, Likely New JSF Program Manager; LM Issues Statement
The bombshell of budget day: Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the prpgram manager of the Joint Strike Fighter program was being canned and would be replaced by a three- star general.
“One cannot absorb the additional costs in this program and the delays without people being held accountable,” Gates said during the question and answer period of his budget briefing today. The latest word on the replacement of Marine Maj. Gen. David Heinz is that Vice Adm. David Venlet, NAVAIR commander, will lead the program. (This may be the first time a three star general has run a Defense Department program, indicating just how important the JSF is to Gates and to the Obama administration.)
Initial congressional reaction was biting. Although a congressional aide said he was not “surprised” by Gates’ decision, the aide also made clear that he thought Heinz was a fall guy. “He is not the first to provide his best professional judgment and be fired for it becaise it is contrary to White House and Second Gates’ politics,” the aide said in an email. The aide wrote back speculating that Gen. Heinz may well have ticked off Gates with his quiet but persistent support for a second engine for the F-135. Heinz told me and others several times that a second engine could well result in lower costs and provide operational benefits by lessening the program’s dependence on a single engine. “Gates does not like this kind of thinking, no matter how much sense it makes. Heinz wasn’t in lock step with the politics — he is interested in future fighter force readiness and affordability,” the aide said.
Gates, of course, has opposed the second engine, although he has, so far, been unwilling to go to the mat over the F136.
Gates, who visited Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant where the F-35 is built and made clear his vigorous support for the program, admitted “there were more problems than we were aware of when I visited Fort Worth.” But he said Ash Carter, head of Pentagon acquisition, had done a good job of pushing the program’s restructure since then. Among the fundamental changes to the program is that the Joint Estimating Team’s cost estimate is now the official estimate, rather than the official program management office’s estimate.
In addition, Gates said he is keeping $614 million in contractor fees. Lockheed Martin, we are sure, agreed to this without hesitation. Late in the day (about 8 p.m.) Lockheed sent out this statement: “We have been working with the Secretary and Dr. Carter on a plan to get the program back on track and are committed to stabilizing F-35 cost, affordability and to fielding the aircraft on time. Secretary Gates today made it very clear that all procurement programs will have accountability and we support that position,” said spokesman Chris Geisel. “We understand what’s expected -– there is a clear set of performance and milestone criteria –- and we are confident we will achieve them.”