Secretary of Defense Robert Gates voiced strong dissatisfaction Monday with a lack of progress on the F-35 joint strike fighter program, publicly taking prime contractor Lockheed Martin to task.
Gates, at a Pentagon media briefing on the proposed 2011 defense budget, announced the firing of the top military officer managing the F-35. Gates said $614 million will be withheld from Lockheed to help the government cover rising F-35 expenses.
"Progress and performance of the F-35 over the past two years has not been what it should, as a number of key goals and benchmarks were not met," Gates said. It was only last April that he staked the future of American combat air power on the F-35 Lightning II by killing Lockheed's F-22 Raptor.
"It's clear there were more problems than we were aware of when I visited Fort Worth" in August, Gates said of the upbeat progress reports he had received from Lockheed and military officials.
Speaking to reporters at the briefing on the planned $741 billion defense budget, Gates said he decided to replace the Pentagon's manager overseeing the F-35, Marine Major Gen. David Heinz, with a higher ranking officer — a three star general or admiral — to run the program.
"To now move forward in this program in a realistic way, one cannot absorb the additional costs that we have in this program and the delays without people being held accountable," Gates said.
Officials did not name the new manager, but sources told the Star-Telegram it will be Vice Adm. David J. Venlet, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command who oversees all Navy and Marine aviation programs. He is a former Navy fighter pilot and test pilot.
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