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Reese Schonfeld Headshot

Is the Private Sector More Efficient Than the Government?

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Not if you're talking about the F-35, it ain't.

Tuesday's InsideDefense under the title of "F-35 PEO: Program Management Much Improved, Looking Forward to Competition" indicates that Lockheed Martin's contracts with subcontractors did not contain "clauses mandating that key actions be performed with in a certain period of time, leading aircraft taking longer to fix than necessary." In other words, Lockheed Martin was allowing its subs to take as long as they wanted when repairing or maintaining "the entire F-35 fleet."

That information is revealed in the last paragraph of sixteen paragraphs of what the Joint Strike Fighters program executive officer called "major management changes made on the F-35 over the last several years." The other fifteen paragraphs are devoted to "improved... management practices that have occurred over the last three to four years." The Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Christopher Bodgen believes that the changes "have significantly lowered the level of risk of the F-35 going forward." Most of the report is a laundry list of past practices that no competent buyer would have permitted in the first place -- some of them internal but most of them involving the prime contractor Lockheed and its subcontractors. Bogden wants to bring other companies into four areas: "training center management, global supply chain management, the procurement and sustainment of support equipment, and the operation and maintenance of the 'Autonomic Logistics Information System.' Those functions are performed today by Lockheed Martin." It's eighteen years since the Air Force let the contract to Lockheed and they finally decided it's time for competition. No wonder the F-35 is seven years behind schedule and that, according to former Procurement Chief Ashton Carter, "Over the lifetime of this program, the decade or so, the per-aircraft cost of the 2,443 aircraft has doubled in real terms."

I believe that most of that is the result of the complexity of the military-industrial complex. It used to be that military weapons were manufactured by the military. Government arsenals manufactured army weapons, navy shipyards provided the ships that fought sea battles, military engineers designed the weapons and we won all the wars we waged until Korea, when the military-industrial complex first emerged. The Springfield Armory built the long guns, Springfields and Garands, that helped us win both World Wars and the war in Vietnam. The Brooklyn and Norfolk Navy Yards produced the ships and submarines that got us through World Wars I and II, the ships were designed by naval architects working for the U.S. Department of the Navy. So far as I know, no one has ever accused the Springfield Armory, the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the Norfolk Navy Yard of cost overruns or manufacturing inefficiency. It seems to me that the DOD would've been a heck of a lot better off if it built its own weapons, than turning the design and manufacture over to private enterprise companies, whose main purpose is to make money.

In Newark, NJ, where I grew up, city governments would fight over the allocation of federal funds, disputes were always settled when someone got up and said "But fellas, it's only federal money, let's take it all and split it up later." That seems to me to be the way Lockheed Martin and all its subcontractors handle their F-35 contracts. Although I know this is only a pipe dream, I'd like to suggest, that once again, the Department of Defense should consider hiring its own designers and engineers and manufacturing its own weapons. They couldn't do a worse job than Lockheed with the F-35. It's about time the government started competing with the military-industrial complex.