F-35 Still Faces ‘Considerable’ Risks: Auditors

F-35C

The Defense Department’s F-35 fighter jet program has recently made progress on several fronts, but still faces “considerable” challenges and risks, according to a new analysis from government auditors.

The Joint Strike Fighter program in 2012 met most of its management objectives, according to recent testimony from Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

The development effort last year completed initial software testing, started pilot training and renegotiated the contract with Lockheed Martin Corp., the plane’s manufacturer, yet failed to deliver the planned 40 production aircraft and correct deficiencies in the system for tracking cost and schedule progress, according to the remarks.

With about two-thirds of development testing remaining, “the program continues to incur financial risk,” Sullivan said in testimony prepared for a June 19 hearing of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

The Joint Strike Fighter is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons acquisition program, with an estimated cost of $391 billion to develop and build 2,457 Lightning II aircraft. That’s $4.5 billion, or 1.1 percent, less than a projection from last year due in part to revised labor rates.

Fifty-two aircraft have been delivered through 2012. The single-engine jet designed to replace such aircraft as the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, and AV-8B.

The Defense Department next year plans to spend $8.4 billion to buy 29 F-35s, including 19 for the Air Force, six for the Marine Corps, and four for the Navy. The funding includes $6.4 billion in procurement, $1.9 billion in research and development, and $187 million in spare parts.

Ensuring that the F-35 is affordable continues to be “of paramount concern,” Sullivan said. The program is estimated to cost, on average, $12.6 billion a year through 2037, he said.

“Maintaining this level of sustained funding will be difficult in a period of declining or flat defense budgets and competition with other ‘big ticket items’ such as the KC-46 tanker and a new bomber program,” Sullivan said.

If international customers don’t buy the planned minimum of 697 aircraft, unit costs will increase. In addition, the Pentagon has said the cost to operate and sustain the jet — estimated at more than $1 trillion over its 30-year service life — isn’t affordable.

According to the GAO’s Sullivan, the program has made “considerable progress” in limiting the aircraft’s four areas of technical risk, including the helmet-mounted display, autonomic logistics information system, arresting hook system and structural durability. “However, additional work remains to fully address those risks,” he said.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., earlier this month unsuccessfully sought to freeze procurement funding for the program until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel certified that Lockheed fixed these problems.

“I want contractors to be held accountable and I want to fix the technical problems before we give them another $6 billion of taxpayer money,” she said during a hearing to amend the House’s version of the 2014 defense authorization bill. “There’s nothing wrong with flying before we buy. In fact, most of us test drive cars before we [buy].”

The panel voted against her amendment to the legislation, which sets policy goals and spending targets for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

The program has also taken steps to improve the plane’s software, an area of concern that Pentagon officials and lawmakers have said may cause more delays, according to Sullivan.

Lockheed has reassigned 200 engineers to work on the software, including many from outside the aeronautics division, with specialties in space, ship-board, and sensor technology, according to Steve O’Bryan, vice president of F-35 program integration and business development.

“We pulled the best and brightest from throughout our organization,” he said June 19 during a press conference at the Paris Air Show.

The company has also invested $100 million to build a second laboratory where employees work in shifts around the clock to write, test, and verify the code, O’Bryan said.

The GAO found that the time it took to fix software defects last year fell from 180 days to 55 days and the time needed to build and release software for testing dropped from 187 hours to 30 hours, according to Sullivan.

Still, the version of software needed by the Air Force and the Navy to begin combat operations in 2016 and 2019, respectively, remains one of the program’s “highest risks,” he said. (The Navy on Saturday received its first F-35C, the version of the aircraft designed for carrier take-offs and landings.)

The final software package, known as 3F, is designed to support a suite of internal and external weapons, including the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, laser-guided Paveway II bomb, Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, and infrared Sidewinder missile.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.

31 Comments on "F-35 Still Faces ‘Considerable’ Risks: Auditors"

  1. "yet failed to deliver the planned 40 production aircraft and correct deficiencies in the system for tracking cost and schedule progress".

    OK how many of the 40 did they deliver (39, and by type?) and how many were ordered of each type?

    Were the system deficiences a big deal and if so, when will they fix it? The rest is current history…..

  2. So like most DOD pork the pentagon talks a BIG game on how good they are but reality is far from there office in DC.

  3. Flat or declining budgets wouldn't be a problem if the DoD knew how to manage the F-35 program.

  4. Sounds like they never read The Mythical Man-Month

  5. Cancel this worthless aircraft, fire all VP, order moree F22 PROBLEM SOLVE.

  6. < but still faces “considerable” challenges and risks,>

    Just pump more money into the program and you can solve all of the challenges and risks. Simple.

  7. The contractors need to realize that the whole F35 debacle is not just about this one system, its about the Pentagon's way of doing things. Congress is sharpening its knives. Congress has already said it doesnt trust the Pentagon on gay soldiers, women in combat, and sexual assault, and is gaining considerable steam to challenge procurement and the cosy relationship with contractors. (Of course Congress is a big PART of the problem, but that doesnt stop the pols from taking shots)

  8. F-15 production line OPEN
    F-16 production line OPEN
    F-18 production line OPEN
    F-22 production line CLOSED
    F-35 production line FUBAR

    Insane! So much waste.

  9. F-35 Still Faces ‘Considerable’ Risks from "free stuff" Obama budgets. Maybe Canada can protect us?

  10. American should spend these billion in protecting tech from the Chinese. after this heavy spending and these technology falls in the wrong hands , it render the program. wealthless .

  11. Let's not forget that China probably stole the plans to the F-35.

  12. Anyone else think that the Navy's F-35C delivery was a response to the recent article in the Proceedings June 2013 issue called "Averting the Navy's Tactical Aircraft Crisis?" Lockheed's new chief engineer also came out and said that the F-35C was his highest priority.

  13. I've got a plan, let's just transfer the F-35 to China, since they've got most of it already any way, then they can "fix" all of the problems ;-P

  14. We still don't know how the final version of F-35 will perform, how much it will cost to purchase and how much it will cost to operate. Normally a prudent customer wait for more data before committing. But since so much money has already been invested the program rolls on. I pray it works out because if it doesn't the US and its allies can say goodbye to air superiority.

  15. Leon Suchorski | June 26, 2013 at 5:11 am | Reply

    Back in the 60s, I worked in R&D on the EA-6A while I was in the Marines. I found that I could write a better tech manual on our systems than the engineers, and they had me rewrite them. Doing it my way was faster, and in combat , speed of repair is prominent. The engineer is only good so far, and then the guy who will have to do the work takes the better road. I say give the F-35 a chance, and you might be surprised. They still talk about the work that we did in the 60s on the EA-6A as precedent setting for the EA-6B, the Growler, and the Prowler.

  16. Holy S***!!
    How can a F-35 do the job of an A-10??????
    Pentagon has just gone CRAZY!!!!!!

  17. I bet a lot of people who oppose the F-35 probably also opposed the F-14, F-15, F-16 and F-18 back in the day, also.

  18. "…two-thirds of development testing remaining…"
    This aircraft is a bridge too far. Sorry folks, I am all for outfitting with the best equipment available but common sense needs to play a role as well otherwise we would be spending trillions to outfit every grunt with a man-portable rail gun. There are come things they have learned work during this development and it's time to take those and use them with either existing airframes or with a much cheaper one. We simply cannot afford this white elephant going forward with absolutely no confidence that it will ever meet its goals and expectations let alone be anywhere near the cost projections (which have only gone up since the beginning).

  19. Don B, USAF RET MSGT | June 26, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Reply

    Old but gold, the A10, we got them and they have proven their reliability. Mean machine. Reliable!

  20. The shitty F-35 to replace all those aircraft? Our government is crazy!

  21. Why don't we let the people whose (sp?) lives depend on "danger close" air support decide what they want. An A-10 that can pump hard core death out of that gatling gun, is highly survivable, is capable of rapid repair (duct tape and bailing wire) and can loiter a hell of a lot longer over the battle area sipping fuel compared to a fast mover guzzeling gas and prone to tempermental software glitches and micro FOD?
    Just wonderin'.

  22. "The Defense Department next year plans to spend $8.4 billion to buy 29 F-35s, including 19 for the Air Force, six for the Marine Corps, and four for the Navy. The funding includes $6.4 billion in procurement, $1.9 billion in research and development, and $187 million in spare parts."

    I'm sorry, but how can this purchase be considered even remotely rational? This abortion is supposed to replace the F-16, the Warthog, and essentially every other warplane in our inventory? I thought Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was dead.

  23. I suggest that the next fighter program not be a forced contrivance to meet fifteen different needs all at once. But, developing a fighter that can grow over time, like the F-16 has may be the best way to go about it. And yet, even the F-16 under performed initially. The Block 10, 15 and 20 aircraft were nearly worthless, and were replaced quickly. If we went straight to the Block 30 F-16, I am sure everyone woud be complaining about how long it took to develop, and how much it cost. At least with the F-35, all the aircraft can be upgraded to higher blocks with small hardware changes, and significant software upgrades.

  24. go f-35 !!! build more F-22s !!!

  25. From reading the title of the article, seems like the solution is simple: Just fire all the auditors. Done.

  26. Since the F-35 is now acknowledged as a Gound Attack Fighter and not as an air superiority fighter, perhaps it is time to restart the F-22 line. We need an air superiority fighter that can win at least against the Sukhoi S-35. The T-50 remains to be evaluated.

  27. >>
    The final software package, known as 3F, is designed to support a suite of internal and external weapons, including the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, laser-guided Paveway II bomb, Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, and infrared Sidewinder missile.
    >>
    This is the real issue because it's not even being acknowledged.
    The F-35 was born in 1994, less than three years after the success of the F-117 when that airframe's reputation as indeed 'stealth' as a concept was based on the stupid notion direct laydown delivery of X2, 2,000lb, LGB. Driven right up the middle of an active terminal defense.
    The F-35 capitalized on that -false perception- of how LO was best employed and so only sought to improve upon it by adding a pair of 'self defense' AMRAAM while changing the guidance mode of the bombs from SALH to PTOD, sufficient to drop through clouds rather than from underneath them.

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