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Why Lockheed CEO’s F-35 Remarks Ring Hollow

Marillyn Hewson, CEO of Lockheed Martin (right)

Marillyn Hewson, chairwoman, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin, expressed a great deal of optimism about the F-35 during a recent interview with AviationWeek. By itself, there is nothing surprising in this. One would expect the CEO to put a positive spin on the largest single program for the company. After all, the F-35 makes up 20 percent of Lockheed Martin’s consolidated net sales according to the company’s 2015 annual report.

What was quite curious, and perhaps very revealing, about her remarks was the key metric by which she chose to express her optimism. When asked to provide an update on the F-35 program, Hewson responded, “the Marine Corps declared their IOC [initial operational capability] last year; they are combat ready. The U.S. Air Force will declare this year, followed by the Navy in 2018.”

The casual observer will be forgiven for not catching the subtle reveal in her statement. Notice she said the Air Force will declare IOC this year, followed by the Navy two years later.

Declaring a system ready for combat, or IOC, is hardly a simple matter of putting a date on a calendar. A new weapon system has to achieve the minimum performance criteria. In the case of the Air Force’s F-35A, IOC will occur when “the first operational squadron is equipped with 12-24 aircraft, and Airmen are trained, manned, and equipped to conduct basic Close Air Support (CAS), Interdiction, and limited Suppression and Destruction of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD/DEAD) operations in a contested environment.”

POGO has reported extensively on why the impending Air Force IOC declaration will be nothing more than a public relations stunt. The top Pentagon weapons tester reported earlier this year that the version the Marine Corps used for its F-35 IOC declaration would have to “avoid threat engagement” and require rescuing from other aircraft should it encounter an enemy plane. Since the Air Force’s version only has a new computer and no new capabilities, the situation will be much the same.

Should the Air Force make the anticipated IOC announcement in the next few weeks as expected, “initial” will certainly be the operative word with regard to the plane’s combat utility. The planes to be used for such purposes will operate with the 3i software version. The planes with this configuration are capable of carrying a very limited weapons load both in terms of type and quantity. It can carry only two air to air missiles and a few bombs which it will only be capable of employing in a limited “employment envelope.”

Joint Strike Fighter Chart released by the F-35 Joint Program Office

The F-35 program has done little to prove its worth to the American people, who are stuck paying the bill for this, the most expensive acquisitions program in history. For the CEO of Lockheed Martin to treat this very important milestone in the program as little more than a formality—or worse, a foregone conclusion—is shameful.