By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A04
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, losing patience with the Pentagon's most expensive weapons system, said Monday that he would fire the general in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter program and withhold $614 million from the contractor, Lockheed Martin.
The Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35 Lightning II, is touted as the future centerpiece of the U.S. military's approach to waging war in the skies. But its development has already been plagued by billions of dollars in cost overruns and what Gates called "a troubling performance record."
Gates said he was replacing Marine Maj. Gen. David R. Heinz, the executive officer in charge of the Joint Strike Fighter's development. He declined to identify Heinz's successor but said it would be a person of higher rank -- the equivalent of a three-star general -- to reflect the importance of the program.
Gates's announcement came as a surprise on the day the Obama administration unveiled its proposed 2011 budget for the Pentagon and other federal agencies. The administration is seeking $708 billion for the military, including $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The White House also said Monday that it would ask Congress for an additional $33 billion this year to fund Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Gates has repeatedly sent high-ranking officers packing for what he has called poor performance.
In May, he fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan. In June 2008, he ousted Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley after a B-52 was accidentally loaded with nuclear missiles and flown across the country without anyone realizing the mistake. In 2007, he fired Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey after articles in The Washington Post exposed problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"If I've set one tone at the Department of Defense, it's that when things go wrong, people will be held accountable," Gates told reporters Monday.
Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said Gates's emphasis on accountability has been well-received on Capitol Hill, where legislators so far have largely been willing to defer to his recommendations on controversial weapons programs.
"There's a sense that he's minding the store," said Fontaine, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Despite the problems with the F-35, the Obama administration is asking Congress to provide $11.4 billion overall for the Joint Strike Fighter program next year, including $8.4 billion to buy 43 planes.
Gates visited Lockheed's Joint Strike Fighter plant in Fort Worth, Tex., last August and gave positive reviews of the plane's progress at the time. Asked what had happened to change his mind, he told reporters, "It was clear there were more problems than I was aware of when I visited Fort Worth." He did not elaborate.
He said he would withhold $614 million in performance bonuses from Lockheed, the prime contractor for the plane, for missing various benchmarks. "The taxpayer should not have to bear the entire burden of getting the JSF program back on track."
He said Lockheed had agreed with his decision. A spokeswoman for Bethesda-based Lockheed declined to comment.
Gates also said that he thought the program was now on solid ground. "I would say there are no insurmountable problems, technological or otherwise, with the F-35," he said. "We are in a position to move forward with this program in a realistic way."