According to Austin Wright of Politico Morning Defense (17 September 2014), the US government director for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program may be in his job for a long time. Lt. General Christopher Bogdan says that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has signed off on his staying indefinitely, and that he’s now waiting for the endorsement from Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work. When might he leave? "When Secretary Hagel and Deputy Secretary Work and Mr. Kendall and Mr. Stackley get tired of me," he said. As the story continued,
The [customary] two-year term limit was cast aside as a result of discussions that began two years ago with him and his predecessor, retired Vice Admiral. David Venlet, and senior Pentagon leaders. "We decided that to give this program a fighting chance—it wasn't just me personally; it's whoever's in this job—needs to have the time to make changes that need to be made and see them through," Bogdan said. "The senior leadership agreed with that."
The desire for a longer tenure is understandable. Lockheed Martine certainly has stuck with a consistent cast of characters. Whether as VP or EVP, Tom Burbage was the face of the program from its inception until 2013, and even since then, the team has been relatively stable. That sort of tenure provides a natural advantage to the contractor in negotiations with the government; if the supplier can talk with experience that his customer will never have, it’s hard to keep up with the arguments.
For the foremost example of this sort of tenure on the government’s side, consider the now-legendary success of the Navy’s Polaris missile submarine program. As I wrote in March, when the first ship, USS George Washington, undertook its first operational patrol in November 1960, the program had come in fully three years ahead of schedule, and at a cost overrun of less than four percent. Shepherding the combination of ship, missile, and atomic reactor from concept to completion was a single program manager, then-Rear Admiral William Raborn.
On the other hand, there was Admiral Hyman Rickover, who ran the overall nuclear power program for the Navy, more than occasionally clashing with Raborn and what he was trying to accomplish. Rickover effectively started the reactors program in the late 1940s, and stayed in that job until 1982, when he was 81 years old. That January, Navy Secretary John Lehman forced him into retirement, ended what Lehman called his "viselike grip” on the much of the service. Generals and admirals can indeed overstay their usefulness to the acquisition system.
Should we worry about General Bogdan becoming an immovable fixture? Hardly. First, he’s not nearly as crotchety as Rickover on his best days. Second, no JSF program manager will ever garner the friends in Congress that Rickover amassed. Even if no one is willing to seriously question the future of the program, close association reminds constituents of the JSF's financial and industrial difficulties. Third, we already know how this works. In February 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired his JSF program manager, Major General David Heinz of the Marine Corps, for presiding over uncontrolled price increases and schedule slippages. So, if you can fire a challenged PM, you might consider sticking with the good ones when you see them.