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GAO Recommends Delay in JSF Program

In testimony before Congress last week, an official of the General Accounting Office (GAO) recommended that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program be delayed in order to allow critical technologies to mature. The testimony by Louis Rodriques, GAO's Director for Defense Acquisitions Issues, summarized the results of a draft report being prepared by the agency on the JSF program.

In the effort to control the costs of the JSF program, the Pentagon's acquisition strategy is designed to reduce program risks in its initial phases in part by allowing key technologies to mature sufficiently so that they match the aircraft's performance requirements. According to the GAO, "a technology is considered to be mature when it has been developed to a point that it can be readily integrated into a new product and counted on to meet product requirements." Ensuring that key technologies are mature early in a program avoids having to make major changes later. As in all development programs, the later changes are made, the more costly they become.

Currently the JSF is scheduled to move into the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase in the spring of 2001. EMD is the phase in which huge expenditures are made to purchase production equipment, train the work force, and buy materials. It is important to have eliminated as much technical risk as possible by this time in order to avoid costly changes. Yet in his prepared testimony, Mr. Rodriques states that "on its current schedule, the program will enter the engineering and manufacturing and development phase without having reduced to an acceptable level the technical risk of technologies that the program office has identified as critical to meeting the program's cost and performance objectives."

The GAO looked at eight critical technologies which are not specified because Boeing and Lockheed Martin are still competing to be the program's prime contractor. The GAO graded the status of the various technologies on a scale of 1 to 9, where technologies that have been fully integrated and operate within a product are rated nine. On this scale, a rating of seven is considered necessary for a given technology to be included in a development program with acceptable risk.

The GAO looked at the readiness levels of the eight technologies when the JSF program began in 1996 and projected where they would be in March 2001. These reviews showed that in 1996 most of the technologies were below level 6, the minimum level normally considered necessary by the Air Force to begin a program. Further, the GAO found that in March 2001, "all of the critical technology levels are expected to be [below level 7] and six of the technologies will still be below [level 6] which is considered acceptable risk for program start" even though the program will be over four years old at the time.

How important is it that the Pentagon allow such critical technologies to mature before going forward? According to the GAO, "should any of these technologies be delayed, or worse still, not available for incorporation into the final JSF design, the impact on the program would be dramatic ...DoD could expect an increase of several billion dollars in production and operation and support costs."