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An F-35C completes a test ​mission to collect data while carrying external 2,000-pound GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) and AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Lockheed Martin photo.

Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord doesn’t see a big danger that the F-35 program will spiral away from commonality when the services take over most of the work of managing their own variants. She also said the Defense Department will look to “loosely associating” multi-service efforts in new technologies such as hypersonics and artificial intelligence, but isn’t launching joint program offices in those “technology domains."

Lord recently complied with a congressional directive to report on “alternative management structures” for the F-35 Joint Program Office, saying in her response to Capitol Hill the JPO will eventually be superseded by the separate services managing their own F-35 variants.

This will happen “based on conditions” not yet met, she told reporters in her Pentagon office Friday, and lead to “more individual service focus.” This is because the program has reached a point where the need to preserve commonality must be “rebalanced” with the needs of the services “to do the things they individually need to do,” because each of the service variants have “slightly different missions.”

Lord said, “We want them to be interoperable, we want them to leverage the economies of scale, and the efficiencies” of common operating procedures. However, she feels that giving the services more control will allow the Pentagon to more “quickly modernize the aircraft” to their own requirements.

“At this point, I think we are all very, very focused on affordability and efficiency, and sometimes that might be better done with a little more service involvement” on their own type of the fighter, she said.

Asked if there needs to be an overseer to prevent service-added uniqueness from defeating the commonality already built into the program, Lord said she thinks that issue will take care of itself. 

“The JPO makes recommendations about this,” she noted, and there’s an Executive Steering Group comprised of the services and foreign users of the F-35 “that looks at the direction of where we’re going … what our budgets are, what our requirements are.” Based on those structures, “I don’t think … we need one referee, so to speak.”

The existing JPO structure is useful for creating “synergy” among the users in developing requirements and operating methods, said Lord. Foreign partners and customers “are particularly appreciative of the JPO because it’s very efficient for them” having a single entity to deal with, and in which their own representatives are embedded. 

“I think that’s a good construct,” she said. “But we constantly have to work the value equation as to how much centralization delivers efficiency versus how much individual structure delivers capability as well. So, there’s a balance, there.”

Lord said she feels Lockheed Martin has “stepped up” to improving F-35 sustainment costs, a “responsiveness” she said she’d like to see spill over into “production as well as development.”

She has seen Lockheed’s leadership “roll up their sleeves and work with us on sustainability” and “we’re on a good trajectory,” Lord said, but “we need to see the magnitude” and speed of cost reductions increase.  

As to whether new technologies would benefit from the JPO approach, Lord said, “We have not discussed’ such structures. “Each of the services” have efforts underway in hypersonics, directed energy, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technology domains, she said, and these are now “federated,” but “we think we could leverage across those programs.” Pentagon research and engineering chief Mike Griffin will figure out how to get those efforts talking to each other, she said, to share what each is learning. It’s necessary because, in AI, for example, “we have 50 programs” and the overall effort would benefit from “loosely associating those to leverage the scale.” She wants to get more multi-program benefit from “what I’ll call ‘silos of excellence.’”