The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most ambitious program in recent Pentagon history, and certainly its most expensive — a jet that comes in three variations, one each for the Air Force, Navy and Marines. It has been plagued by years of glitches and software tweaks, but the Marines have now taken possession of their first combat-ready F-35s, with the Air Force expected to follow next year.
"It's not one of the programs that keeps me up at night anymore," said Kendall. "We've got a lot of work left to do ... but I'm not, at this point in time, terribly worried about the F-35."
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Still, the Defense Department has learned some hard lessons during the program, which was not started under Kendall's watch. "There are several things I would have done differently," he said. For one thing, while it may have seemed cost-effective to have one company — Lockheed Martin — make all three versions of the jet, it basically ended the fighter jet business for other contractors, leaving the Pentagon with only one vendor.
Then there's what Kendall has called "acquisition malpractice" in the way the program unfolded. "The decision to start production before we were confident we had a stable design, before we had flight test results to tell us we had a stable design, I think was a mistake," he said. "I would've delayed the start of production."
Kendall said that while he has been able to work with Lockheed to bring down the cost of the F-35, "The big problem with the F-35 is that we're trying to increase the production rate." Higher production drives down the cost per plane, but without a new budget from Congress, the Pentagon will slash its F-35 purchase this fiscal year by 19 jets. That will result in a lower overall payment, but a higher cost per plane. This could make the F-35 less attractive overall not only to the United States, but international buyers.