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GAO Report Sheds Light On Troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program March 17, 2009

Posted by Stephen Abott in Analysis.
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jsf-in-flightThe GAO released a stunning report last week detailing the development and acquisition problems plaguing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft program. The JSF is the intended replacement for the Harrier Jump Jet, F-16, and many other planes and will be built in conjunction with American allies in three variants for delivery to both the Navy and Air Force. The program exhibits many of the failings currently prevalent in the DOD’s development and acquisition system.

  • Under its current – and recently accelerated – procurement schedule, the Pentagon intends to spend more than $55 billion to acquire 360 aircraft (15% of total intended buy) before it completes developmental flight testing.
  • The DOD is acquiring the first 300-odd aircraft under a cost-type contract. This reimburses the contractor for costs incurred as the system is too immature to pin a per-plane cost to the program. While not abnormal for developmental programs, the procurement of hundreds of planes under this arrangement means that the system may not be ready for full-scale production.

  • Contractors and the Pentagon assume a rosy build schedule, not in line with recent fighter plane development norms. Thus, the contractors may not be able to increase production in time for the massive increase in procurement – leading to cost overruns and possible manufacturing errors.
  • The bulk of the plane’s developmental testing will take place in simulators and lab, with only about 15% of testing in traditional flight testing. The Pentagon says that its more robust non-traditional testing methods will quicken the developmental schedule, but the GAO notes that such testing has never been done at such a massive scale, many of the testing labs are not yet accredited, and problems may be found only late in the process, after the production of hundreds of planes.
  • GAO notes that DOD’s optimistic development schedule calls for a reduction of engineering expertise before the end of testing, this may occur just as manpower is needed to correct problems which manifest themselves in advanced testing and build ramp-up.
  • The program will not conduct testing on “fully integrated, mission capable aircraft” until 2012 – after the purchasing of nearly 250 JSF aircraft.

These programmatic issues are endemic to DOD’s development and acquisition system. Many programs are increasingly over budget, delivered years behind schedule, have too-rosy design, testing, development, and acquisition schedule, and focus on fixing design errors too late in the process.

Pushing systems and technologies into development before they have matured leads to cost overruns while at the same time the services and contractors promise unrealistic costs and capabilities. The result is a system unresponsive to and un-attuned to changing defense needs while growing over-budget and past schedule. The F-35 JSF is on a path towards increased cost growth as its procurement and development schedule has become increasingly unrealistic; something especially troubling for the Defense Department’s most complex, ambitious, and expensive program.

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