Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- The new U.S. Air Force chief of staff said “repair work” is needed to mend relations with Lockheed Martin Corp. as he renewed concern about its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
General Mark Welsh, who became the top uniformed Air Force officer last month, said he will meet with Lockheed Martin executives “in a couple of weeks” to review the operating costs of the F-35, the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program.
“I still have questions about the operating cost of the airplane,” Welsh told reporters at the annual conference of the Air Force Association, a civilian group that promotes aerospace education. “The company knows that. If you can buy it and can’t afford to fly it, it’s not going to do you much good.”
His comments at the meeting outside of Washington came a day after the new deputy head of the Pentagon’s F-35 program said his office’s relationship with plane manufacturer Lockheed Martin is “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Air Force Major General Christopher Bogdan, on the job five weeks as deputy program executive officer, fired an unusual public salvo at Lockheed yesterday for what he described as a poor partnership in managing the Joint Strike Fighter program.
“We will not succeed on this program until we get past that,” Bogdan said in a briefing to the association. “We have to find a better place to be in this relationship. We have to.”
Asked about that assessment today, Welsh told reporters, “Evidently, there’s some repair work that needs to be done.”
Michael Rein, a spokesman for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, issued a statement yesterday saying, “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.”
Lockheed, the world’s largest defense contractor, fell 44 cents to $91.77 at the close of New York trading and has risen 13 percent this year.
The $395.7 billion F-35 acquisition program has been subject to criticism for years for ballooning costs. The first four contracts, for 63 jets, exceeded their combined target cost by $1 billion, according to congressional auditors.
The $395.7 billion estimate for the entire acquisition program is a 70 percent increase from the $233 billion projected in late 2001, when development began, after adjusting for inflation.
The F-35 “operationally is performing pretty well,” Welsh said.
Concern about the fighter’s price tag comes as the Pentagon is under growing pressure to cut costs. The Defense Department faces an additional $500 billion in cuts to future spending over the next decade unless Congress and President Barack Obama act to avert automatic across-the-board cuts that are to begin in January.
If forced to make more cuts, Welsh said he would begin by looking at airplanes restricted to a single mission. He cited as an example the A-10 Warthog, which was developed in the early 1970’s to provide close air support for ground forces.
“The single-mission airplanes are the ones that would get the most scrutiny first,” Welsh said.
His weapons priorities remain the F-35, the KC-46 tanker, which is in development, and a future long-range bomber, he said. “Those three things are fundamental to the future of our air force,” he said.
While cybersecurity remains a major concern, Welsh said in his speech, “I’m concerned it’s a black hole” because of what he described as poorly defined requirements in that emerging field.
“I’m going to go a little slow on the operational side of cyber until we know what we’re doing,” he said, telling reporters afterward, “‘This is a really fuzzy area for a lot of people, not just the Air Force.’’
Welsh again expressed concern about the sexual-assault scandal that rocked Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where at least 15 military instructors have been under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct with trainees.
While the service has tried to deal with the issue of sexual assaults in the past, Welsh said, ‘‘we’re not making a difference in the big scheme of things.’’
He said Air Force Secretary Michael Donley will get recommendations on any changes to policy by the end of October. Colonel Deborah Liddick has been named to take command of basic training at the troubled Lackland base on Sept. 21, according to an Air Force statement.
Welsh, who gave a motivational speech in a packed ballroom that drew a standing ovation, described his most immediate task as ‘‘hugging the force.’’
‘‘Our folks are tired,’’ he told reporters later, citing two decades of almost constant no-fly-zone and combat missions. ‘‘Their families are tired.’’
He said his immediate mission is to communicate clearly and motivate his airmen.
‘‘If I can do that, they’ll take care of everything else,’’ he said.
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