UPDATED: Lockheed offers official reply to Gen. Bogdan. (8 a.m. Tuesday)

NATIONAL HARBOR: The likely new leader of the Joint Strike Fighter program opened what looks to be a new era — at least rhetorically — today offering large dollops of what he called “straight talk” about both Lockheed Martin’s performance and the government’s.

Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan made his very pointed and detailed remarks at the Air Force Association’s annual conference here, speaking to an audience of several hundred, including representatives of foreign partners, allies, industry representatives, and blue suiters.

(Remember that we are talking about the biggest conventional weapons program in American history. How big? The latest official government estimate puts the program at $1.5 trillion over its 50 year life, although few experts believe that number is a great more deal more than a guess.)

“Here comes a little bit of straight talk,” he said at the top of his early afternoon remarks at AFA.

The hottest lines:

“Today, I am going to manage this program as if there is no more time and no more money.”

The Joint Program Office will “have to fundamentally change the way we do business with Lockheed Martin.”

“Lockheed Martin is showing some improvements in producing this aircraft. Is it coming fast enough for us? No.”

“Would we expect them to be a little ahead of the learning curve on their fifth lot of aircraft? Yes.
Are costs coming down as fast as we want them to? No.”

“We have an awful lot of software on this program. It scares me.”

“You cannot go to war unless you have a helmet that works… Today we have a helmet that works in a rudimentary way.”

Concurrency “makes it [program management] so much harder than it needs to be.”

“What I would tell you is, just because you have a lot of actual costs [data] about how much it costs to produce the airplane, that doesn’t mean that’s how much you want to pay for the airplane.”

Boil all of this together and you get a new program leader eager to tell Lockheed, Capitol Hill (especially JSF arch-critic Sen. John McCain), the Pentagon leadership, and the hundreds of subcontractors and suppliers who keep the Joint Strike Fighter program rolling along that there’s a new sheriff in town, one who believes in “transparency” and who will describe in clear and unremitting terms what is happening to America’s biggest conventional weapons program and why.

If you want to focus on what Bogdan thinks are probably the two weakest links in the program — aside from the rotten relationship between the Pentagon and Lockheed — they would clearly be the pilot’s helmet and the 10 million lines of software.

“You don’t fly this aircraft without a helmet,” Bogdan said. And the Marines, who he said want to declare Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2015, may be hard-pressed to fly with the current helmet. “In the long term, I think we’re going to get there on the helmet,” he said, but made clear the Marines may face difficulties flying with the current one. BAE is working on a backup helmet. “We are still evaluating how quickly we can get the backup helmet,” he said, adding they would have an answer in the next 90 to 120 days.

On development of the Block 2 software, Bogdan said this: “Here’s what I can tell you. Although we are doing OK in developing Block 2 we are doing only OK.” The effort, he estimated, is 90 to 120 days behind schedule.

I pressed Bogdan on the production improvements after his speech, since Lockheed has been pressing hard to ramp up the production line so they can achieve economies of scale and bring down the plane’s unit costs. He saw what he characterized as “glimmers of hope.”

While he has “not been to the production line yet,” he does see the JPO’s weekly and monthly reviews of the production process.

“Some of the span time for doings things like putting the wings on the fuselage are coming down very nicely. So, from one airplane to the next you can see that Lockheed is getting better,” the general told me.

There’s been a “dramatic decrease in the number of hours it takes to get each airplane out of production and onto the flight line and gone. That’s really good. Their suppliers are doing really well when it comes to scrap and rework and waste.” But it is the suppliers who are doing well on this — not Lockheed. Bogdan said he wants to see quality of the product coming down the line improving and the time on the line improving.

In a very clear signal to Lockheed, the general said negotiations on the fifth lot of production “shouldn’t take 10 to 11 months.”

“In general when you are on your fifth lot of production you know an awful lot about how the airplane is being produced and how much it costs,” he added.

In a clear signal to his own people and Lockheed, Bogdan said, “we are always behind on the contracting process. I don’t like that at all.” He wants to “streamline the process on both sides.”

Lockheed sent a reply early last evening. They were tight-lipped immediately after the general’s comments. Judge for yourself how they reacted in Bethesda and Fort Worth when you read this:

“We agree with Maj. Gen. Bogdan that it takes everyone to be fully engaged to be successful. Lockheed Martin will continue to work with the F-35 Joint Program Office team to successfully deliver the F-35′s 5th Generation fighter capabilities to the war fighter. We remain committed to continuing our work to solve program challenges and build on the momentum and success we’ve achieved during the past couple of years” Michael Rein, F-35 spokesman, said in an email statement.