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GAO: F-35 Program Has ‘Stabilized’

by Matt Cox on April 18, 2013

The Pentagon’s F-35 Lighting II is now twice as expensive as program officials originally envisioned, but a long-time critic of the program still praised the joint strike fighter’s recent successes.

Over the past 12 years, the F-35 program’s estimated cost has grown from an estimated $231 billion in 2001 to $390 billion. The estimated cost of a single aircraft today runs about $137 million, that’s just about double the $69 million cost estimate program officials offered in the beginning.

The Government Accountability Office criticized the program in March, calling it a “financial risk” and questioned it’s long-term affordability.

But the government watchdog group softened its stance at an April 17 hearing before the House Armed Service’s Tactial Air and Land Subcommittee.

“In the past two years, the program appears to have stabilized to some degree,” Michael Sullivan, director of Acquisition and Sourcing for the GAO, told lawmakers.

After the 2010 Nunn-McCurdy breach in the program, the Defense Department and the services “restructured the program and did some very good things in our opinion about adding reasonable costs, limiting requirements and adding schedule and some manpower to the program,” Sullivan said.

Since then, the program has now delivered all 14 developmental aircraft, more test flights are taking place on a daily basis and more progress has been made on “one of the highest risk areas which is software management,” Sullivan said.

Service leaders maintain that F-35’s variants will give the U.S. military an edge in the future, but they worry about the program delays that have forced them to extend service lives of aircraft such as the Harrier out to 2030.

To date, the Pentagon has spent about $28 billion to buy 121 F-35 aircraft and development flight testing is about a third of the way complete, Sullivan said.

“The program still has tremendous challenges ahead,” he said. “There are still significant risks with the helmet mounted display system.”

And software development for the “full-up integrated war fighting capability” still has a long way to go, Sullivan maintains.

Some lawmakers pressed service officials at the hearing to discuss why the proposed fiscal 2014 defense spending plan seemed more concerned about proposed spending efforts on existing aircraft.

“We need the F-35; it’s not going away,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., and the ranking member of the subcomittee.

Sanchez questioned why the Navy wants to spend $900 million in upgrades to the F-22, a plan that averaged about $370 million a piece, she said.

“What are we doing?“ she asked. “What are we buying giving the pressures we have?”

The upgrades, which total about $5 million for each of the Navy’s 180 F-22, will improve the radar ground mapping on the aircraft, helping it find targets better, Navy officials said. It also improves the data link capability. The upgrades are scheduled to last until fiscal 2018.

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