The significant problems in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program call into question whether it is ready for increased production in Fiscal Year 2016. But a new report and testimony from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) signals what might be the program’s acute point of vulnerability, and perhaps the beginning of its unravelling: we just can't afford it.
This is something we've known for years. The below chart from the GAO and much of the testimony make even more clear the huge acquisition bill for the F-35 in coming years:
The annual cost for the Air Force and Navy ranges from $12.2 billion in 2021 to $14-$15 billion from 2022 through 2030. This does not include the coming costs for the Block 4 modifications and upgrades already under consideration. It also does not include the costs to operate the F-35, which the GAO estimates in some years "could easily approach $30 billion [per year]" (emphasis added).
Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, the program manager for the F-35, has argued that the program is now out of the woods despite its past failures. The GAO testimony debunked his assessment, pointing out that the program is now encountering “more complex and demanding developmental testing,” and, as a consequence, "it is almost certain that the program will discover more technical problems."
The GAO also raised concerns about the manufacturing progress of Lockheed Martin, the program's prime contractor. "The percentage of time spent on scrap, rework, and repair increased from 13.8 percent to 14.9 percent between the two most recently completed production lots," the watchdog testified. Most of the rework time was attributed to "fixing misplaced brackets and uneven seams." The GAO goes into further detail in their report:
Lockheed Martin reports that less than 40 percent of its critical manufacturing processes are considered in statistical control which means that for those processes it can consistently produce parts within quality tolerances and standards. Statistical control is a measure of manufacturing maturity. The best practice standard is to have 100 percent of the critical manufacturing processes in control by the start of low-rate initial production, which began in 2011 for the F-35 program. According to Lockheed Martin officials, only 54 percent of its F-35 critical manufacturing processes will provide enough data to measure statistical control. As a result, they do not expect to achieve 100 percent. (Emphasis added)
In addition, the GAO found that Pratt & Whitney, the company manufacturing the F-35's engine, "is experiencing challenges with part shortages and supplier quality with nearly 45 percent of its key suppliers delivering parts late over the past year." Even worse, the GAO found that the Pratt & Whitney engine is significantly below its maintainability targets for this point in the program, with the F-35A engine at 21 percent of its target and the F-35B engine at 52 percent of where it was expected to be at this point. A chart showing the lack of progress is below. The GAO found that these reliability issues were limiting the whole program's progress and "will likely require additional design changes and retrofits."
The GAO also found new F-35B variant airframe cracks, that engine problems were still not adequately addressed, and that the software had continued software delays.
GAO's findings—along with the growing litany of problems identified by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the manufacturing challenges for the program's contractors, and the growing scheduled costs for increased production of combat incapable aircraft—present a compelling case, even for Congress, to reduce F-35 production in 2016.