By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan jolted many when after just five weeks on the $396 billion F-35 fighter jet program, he said ties between Lockheed Martin Corp and the U.S. government were the "worst" he had ever seen.
Three months later, Bogdan's trademark straight talk and insistence on accountability seem to be paying off.
After a year of often tense negotiations, the Pentagon last week reached a deal with Lockheed to buy 32 more F-35 fighters. The jets already produced just exceeded 5,000 flight hours and the Air Force is poised to approve the start of full training efforts at a Florida air base.
The agreement is worth $3.8 billion to Lockheed, but it also marks what many experts see as a new era for the F-35, the Pentagon's biggest weapons program, which is finally delivering results after three major restructurings in recent years.
Pentagon officials strongly back the restructured program, but its massive size means it will remain a possible target amid mounting U.S. budget pressures.
Maintaining funding for the program may be the biggest challenge for Bogdan, a former B-2 bomber test pilot and long-time acquisition expert who moves up from being the deputy director of the F-35 program to the top job on Thursday.
He received his third star last Friday, the same day the Pentagon announced its deal with Lockheed. Bogdan will succeed Navy Vice Admiral David Venlet, who is retiring.
While his blunt talk may have shocked some, it may have been just what the government and Lockheed needed to kick-start the stalled negotiations about a fifth batch of fighters, said a former senior military official.
"It got the senior leadership involved and that was just what was needed," said the official. "At some point, only the adults can make the decisions."
Venlet, a soft-spoken realist and three-star officer, was brought in by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head the F-35 program after he fired two-star Marine Corps Major General David Heinz in February 2010.
Venlet also helped rebuild trust in the program on Capitol Hill while getting a better grip on the vast and complex challenges internally. While he would have given a different speech in September to Bogdan's, officials familiar with his thinking said Venlet fully supported the wish to issue a stern wake-up call.
Defense officials say Bogdan's more forceful style may be just what is needed now. His candor is already winning points among military officials and industry executives alike.
"He's a very competent professional and very candid - a very strong manager," said Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top arms buyer, when asked about Bogdan at an event in New York last week. "I'm looking forward to working with him on the F-35."
3,200 FLIGHT HOURS LOGGED
Bogdan graduated from the Air Force Academy with a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1983, moving on to fly the Air Force's aging KC-135 refueling planes and many others, logging more than 3,200 flight hours in more than 35 different aircraft.
He later earned two master's degrees and spent a year working on missile defense programs before moving into the complex and arcane world of Pentagon procurement in 2001. He also worked at Air Force headquarters, and served as the senior military assistant to former Pentagon arms buyer John Young.
"Chris was extremely helpful. He's very straightforward, open and direct, and I think that's what's needed across acquisition programs right now," Young said. "There's too much of the lawyers and other people tempering and silencing people."
Bogdan stayed on at the Pentagon for several months after Ashton Carter - now deputy defense secretary - replaced Young, but Carter soon named him to lead the Air Force's decade-long effort to buy new refueling planes.
There were some ups and downs, but Bogdan ultimately won kudos for awarding a contract to Boeing Co and locking the company into a fixed-price development contract that analysts say could well result in narrow losses for the company.
"The Air Force has focused heavily on improving the culture and practices of its acquisition people, and Chris Bogdan is exhibit A in the case that they've succeeded," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute. "This is the guy who finally got the Air Force tanker contract awarded after a decade of trying."
A second former military official lauded Bogdan for taking responsibility when an inadvertent data swap threatened the Air Force's third to buy new tankers. "Even when things didn't go perfectly, he took responsibility for fixing what was wrong."
Bogdan emphasizes accountability in every speech he gives these days, underscoring that he and everyone involved in the F-35 program need to take responsibility for their part in what he has called an "incredibly complex" program.
"Take the program construct and the concurrency we have, put those together and boy, you have got one monster on your hands. It is a very complicated program," Bogdan said.
He has also been known to cite the case of the legendary General George S. Patton, the gruff World War Two general, who missed the chance to lead the D-Day invasion of Normandy and was forced to apologize after he slapped two sick soldiers.
Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said Bogdan's experience with tough negotiations on the tanker program would serve him well on the F-35 program, which faces big challenges in coming years as the U.S. Marine Corps gear up to start using the new planes and international partners firm up their orders.
He said Bogdan would need to develop strong ties with top Air Force and Marine Corps leaders, as well as ground commanders who would rely on data gathered by the new warplane.
Kevin Killea, who oversees aviation requirements for the Marine Corps, said Bogdan's arrival had led to noticeable changes at the F-35 program office.
"Whether you like his approach or not, there comes a time in any organization when you heed a change of pace, or a change of attitude," Killea said, noting that the F-35 office had clearly become more aggressive about maintaining the program's schedule.
More changes are likely afoot.
Bogdan ran a lean operation on the tanker program, priding himself on having the smallest staff of any major acquisition program, and he has already spoken with reporters about shedding excess baggage in the much larger F-35 program office.
Bogdan must also establish good ties with the international partners, some of whom have grown frustrated by Washington's repeated moves to slow its own production orders since that slowed progress in driving down the cost per airplane.
"He's going to have to be a very astute politician because of all the emotions and sensitivities that surround the program in this country," said the second former official. "Just as important is going to be talking to the international partners and keeping them informed."
Bill Greenwalt, a former Pentagon official who now works for the Aerospace Industries Association, said Bogdan would be a great asset for the F-35 program, despite his blunt talk.
"He's incredibly sharp, not afraid to speak the truth. He's not going to shoot first and ask questions later. He's going to ask a lot of questions and make the best decisions he can."
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Ros Krasny, desking by G Crosse)