F-35 Still Faces ‘Considerable’ Risks: Auditors

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.
  • RunningBear

    “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…..

    • wpnexp

      All I know is that appperently, 64 are currently flying. They appear to be behind in delivering aircraft, but I would assume that is because they have made lots of changes to the aircraft to meet the services needs. As the concurrency issues are being resolved, it appears that production has increased somewhat. New aircraft should straight of the line with fewer changes occuring on the line.

    • LMGuy

      as of June 2013, there have been 69 F-35s delivered. The new report is inaccurate or out of date.

  • Lance

    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.

  • Ben

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

    • Anonymous

      Instead they furlough the middle class workers.

  • void

    Sounds like they never read The Mythical Man-Month

  • Andy

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

    • Ben

      Modify F-22 with the F-35’s HMDS, DAS, and IRST, then order about 500 more. Fill all additional needs with the Super Hornet.

      Bam. Air dominance secured.

      • blight_

        “Modify F-22 with the F-35’s HMDS, DAS, and IRST, then order about 500 more”

        90 billion dollars later

        “We couldn’t integrate it!”

      • wpnexp

        That doesn’t solve the air to ground issue, that the F-22 can’t fill. Nor can the F-22 be modified for the Navy, Marines, not the UK or any other foreign aircraft. As much as I would love to have more F-22s bought, the F-35 is the aircraft we have. Actually, I would think that after much of the air to ground mission is covered, the F-35 should be modified to fill the air-to-air role along the lines of the F-22. I don’t think it would be impossible to make it a twin engined plane, with a larger wing, and more AAMs.

        • Ben

          I realize that. That’s where the Super Hornet comes in, and that’s why you only buy about 500 additional F-22s.

    • tiger
  • Tad

    < 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.

    • Restore Palestine

      How about another 65 billions for R&D, plus additional 600 billions for increased cost in the entire order due to unexpected delay and technical problems?

  • SJE

    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)

  • Rover

    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.

    • SJE

      A-10 production line OPEN

      More importantly, competitors lines are also open to supply our p**ssed off allies

      • SJE

        Sorry, only the A10 modernization is open.

    • Restore Palestine

      edit:

      F-22 R&D cost FUBAR, quality control FUBAR, production cost & schedule FUBAR, production line CLOSED.

      F-35 R&D cost FUBAR, quality control FUBAR, production cost & schedule FUBAR, production line still OPEN.

    • Restore Palestine

      F-22 R&D cost FUBAR, quality control FUBAR, production cost & schedule

      FUBAR, production line CLOSED.

      F-35 R&D cost FUBAR, quality control FUBAR, production cost & schedule

      FUBAR, production line still OPEN.

    • wpnexp

      The F-35 is in production. One Marine unit has already been stood up, and is training to become operational. The Air Force should be equipping its first operational squadron soon. Finally, the units at Nellis and the units at Eglin could be deployed briefly if required. The Nellis unit will be responsible for developing tactics and conducting operational testing, so they wil be the most capable unit for a while. Also, only the F/A-18 is producing aircraft for the US. All other aircraft are for foreign customers. None of them are stealthy, and after much work, they can only be made somewhat stealthy. All of them require extensive use of wing mounted weapons or pods, none of which are stealthy. The F-35 does need much more weapons testing, but according to F-15E Strike Eagle pilots, the F-15E deployed to the Gulf for Deasert Shield before the plane had completed testing.

  • hibeam

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

    • BlackOwl18E

      Canada is still facing the F-35 threat and from the looks of it they don’t stand a chance despite their fierce resistance.

    • Doc T

      As opposed to the cataclysmic Bush-Cheney floods of free gifts to Corporate America. Cheney lied us into an obscene war in Iraq - four thousand dead, tens of thousands with life altering injuries, trillions spends, hundreds of billions ” lost”, and you make your little comments about Obama’s budget. Go iron your sheet & set fire to a cross.

      • wpnexp

        Tell me which soldier didn’t volunteer to serve his country when they signed up? How is it that recruiting was never a problem during the wars? And it seems that the Congress authorized the wars, and never attempted to defund the wars. If fact, Pres.Obama employed the same surge in Afghanistan the Pres Bush used. It is funny that no one connects the fact that Syria, a second rate country somehow has a huge chemical weapons stockpile, but the larger Iraq did not, when they had already used it in the war with Iran thirty years earlier. Seems you are the nutty one here. Probably in need of a rubber room.

  • gyamfison

    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 .

    • wpnexp

      That is the problem when you try to get dozens of states and nearly as many countries in on the production. Pretty hard to protect all the secrets when things are spread out that much.

  • gyamfison
  • david

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

  • BlackOwl18E

    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.

  • Big-Dean

    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

    • Restore Palestine

      How much are you willing to pay the Chinese to fix F-35’s problems?

  • NGF

    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.

  • Leon Suchorski

    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.

    • John Murray

      Unfortunately they will be talking about the work on the F-35 for at least another decade without a fully functional aircraft to show for it. Not to mention that even though this was supposed to replace the Marine EA-6Bs the EW package is still only on the drawing board with NO projected date for completion while the VMAQT squadrons are slated to be all gone in 2019. Sorry, but I don’t see the F-35 being in position to do that in that time frame and if the Marines hand off their airborne EW role to the Navy they (like the USAF before them) will come to regret it.

      • wpnexp

        Well, seems like the EA-18G Growler is the replacemnt for the EA-6B anyway. If the F-35 has an EW variant that would be awesome, but it is clear that the basic F-35 already flying has more EW capability than any other fighter in the past.

  • Biafra

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

    • SJE

      Time for the army to get its own fixed wing CAS.

    • tiger

      Your A-10 is not that special anymore. The mission it was built for,Killing Armor over Germany is long gone. Smart weapons give other jets the same ability to take out tanks at standoff ranges. The A-10 still needs air superiority to operate effectively. Now you have a plane with more than token air to air ability. Nor do you need a 30mm for most ground targets. Loiter? I still have B-1’s, B-52’s & drones that can hang arround.

    • wpnexp

      Agreed Tiger. Seems we need to keep the A-10 around for a crisis, in a mothball state at least, but the SFW will do more to kill tanks than the maverick will. Not that the F-35 can’t carry the Maverick, but not in stealth mode. Assuming weather isn’t horrible, the EOTS on the F-35 will give a better view from on high than an A-10 flying low and slow. I’m pretty sure flying the F-35 low isn’t ideal, but it is hard to imagine that even the A-10 would survive with a battery of 2S6 Tunguska in the area, not to mention a few dozen SA-24 Grinch’s.

  • Blue

    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.

  • John Murray

    “…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).

    • wpnexp

      Testing is a time consuming process to determine the capabilities of the aircraft, but to suggest that the plane doesn’t work because they are still testing it is wrong. We are still testing B-52s, who would suggest that they don’t work? Not testing the aircraft properly only limits the ability of the plane. Who wants to fly a plane that hasn’t been properly tested. Do you think the testers should cut corners to go faster? This isn’t the P-51 Mustang, which had to be tested and given a new engine to become the great plane it eventually became. Getting the tail hook working and the helmet display perfected are the most serious issues, neither is likely to be a show stopper. In fact, the F-35 has always flown with the Helmet display. Software is doing fine, it just takes time to write and test.

  • Don B, USAF RET MSGT

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

  • USSeal

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

  • Safehouse

    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’.

    • LEG

      The GAU-8 is never any better than the targeting that lays the pipper.
      Late Mod PE/IFFC operational flight programs, along with the targeting pods, have done a lot to take the 30mm out to it’s ballistic limits (to the point where the Combat Mix is no longer efficient because the HE rounds fall out of the pattern at about 10-11,000ft) but as the target shrinks to man-size, so does the need to get up close and personal with the gun to ensure hits. Against insurgent threats, the A-10 is only about a 2,500ft gun-platform, tops.
      And so you have a 4,000lb weapon, taking up 1/2 of the total fuselage volume with perhaps 20-25 aimed bursts onboard. When I can achieve the same effects on target from an 8,200ft slant (that’s from a helicopter referent for 2.5km on the Mk.66 motor, so it may be better on a fast mover) using the M261 or M255 grenade/flechette warheads.

      • LEG

        On an APKWS or DAGR laser-guided rocket.
        The LAU-131 or 68D/D is about a 500lb weight penalty @ 6 shots per pod. So if you’ve got a BRU-55/57 CVER with two pods per rack and two pylons per jet available; you get the same basic bus lethality from a single 70mm cargo rocket as you do 20-30 individual PGU-13/14 rounds. Nearly the same number of passes (20 vs. 25) as aimed engagements. And THREE TIMES the standoff that the A-10 gives you.

        • LEG

          Which is where the ‘nothing can do CAS better’ argument crashes and burns.
          Because not only is the shooter safer from MANPADS and AAA as trashfire, but the lack of an Overhead requirement to wait for the shooter to pull off and clear means that you can instead use the USMC cardinal point system (based on the Harrier and Hornet as .8:1, 450 knot, platforms) to roll in jets in a constant tempo of pass after pass after pass. Because they clear up and away rather than over the top.
          The A-10s gutless TF34s give it a T/Wr of about .5, meaning it takes anything up to 5 minutes to climb back out to perch in AfGs hot’n’hi air and reset for another attack. During which time it can be shot all the way up because it’s only doing about 180 knots. And so can the guys on the ground it’s protecting.

  • Guest

    “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.

    • wpnexp

      Do you realize the the Air Force is spending billions a year on the F-22, and the B-2, and even the F-16. And that is only on research, not production. In fact, the F-35 is running around the same cost in then dollars as the F-15, and the F-15 was only a fighter, and was not replacing five other types of planes. Also, many of the systems embedded on the F-35 are separate subsystems (pods) on other aircraft. If you had to add them to the cost of those planes, they woud be much higher also. Everyone needs to get it that the A-10 and F-16 are not the answer. Even the Boeing F-32 was a turkey compared to the F-35. The problem is, there is no other answer. Gone are the days when we had five fighter programs going at one time (and only two of the five would be worth a damn).

      • ChuckL

        Well, 40% good is much better than 0%.

      • ChuckL

        And the F-35 is running about the same cost in now dollars as the F-22, while delivring so far nothing and when it reaches design capabliity, if ever, only less than half of the capability

  • wpnexp

    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.

  • robert

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

  • XYZ

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

  • ChuckL

    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.

  • LEG

    >>
    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.

    • LEG

      Since the F-35 is going to cost bundles, really is only needed so long as there is an active IADS, and is -crippled- by both the short range of the other types on-deck and the potential lack of offboard targeting in a PacRim, ‘Near Peer’ (DF-21D driven), threat condition; it needs to be leveraged in different ways than it’s baseline design presumed.
      The EA-18G is going to be hard pressed to reach the same operational depths, let alone survive there as an escort jammer. This means NGJ needs to be moved up the priority tree _now_, as a single-seat, LO-enclosure onboard jammer. The F-35B is also 5,000lbs shy on fuel as short on radius (400 vs. 700nm) which means it cannot escort as a LO-enables-LO fighter platform with a small wing sufficient to be competitive in sprint to pol at BVR distances. With the F-22 possibly locked out of Andersen or Kadena by preemptive A2AD strikes, this means the F-35C cannot handle it’s own defense because it cannot sprint to boost the miserable 2-count of AIM-120D.

      • LEG

        This means you have to be willing to switch to a weapon which makes up the difference in total impulse. As the Meteor ram-AAM. With (say) 130 seconds powered out of say 200 seconds total flight time vs. (say) 40 seconds powered out of 120 seconds total flight time with AMRAAM D.
        The 13ftX36″X810lb HARM is flatly not carriageable inside the F-35. Yet the most effective stealth is the finger-in-eye approach which keeps the enemy from looking for you to begin with.
        This means we have to migrate a Quickbolt or JCM seeker to a _common_ long-range, high speed, missile which does fit into the bays, like the AMRAAM or Meteor. Because S2A threats dominate the kill listings of friendly air far more than A2A equivalents and with the ASQ-239, it should be possible to geolocate the threat within a rough coordinate grid and then let the plunging seeker do the terminal acquisition.
        The GBU-53 is superior to the GBU-39 because it is short enough to fit in the bay and has a 2-way datalink as time of flight indicator. But it is still restricted by them glide footprint as long TOF.

        • LEG

          This means that a boosted bomb that deploys it’s wings only after an AASM-like fast midcourse loft (under power) is a good idea to take the weapon to it’s maximum of 30-50nm in as short and altitude flexible a TOF as possible. Particularly against cross-track popup threats.
          Once you get the total downrange standoff as BRL and F-Pole limits up with powered not ballistic-glide munition range improvements, you can start to look at ways to improve weapons carriage as a function of signature.
          This means that, at 80-100nm, you may not be able to mount rack and rail ordnance but encapsulated EWP or External Weapons Pods, similar to those of the Super Hornet International are possible. WIth four AMRAAM class or two AMRAAM + four GBU-53/B, you are looking at potentially a 5:1 (10 shots) improvement in a defensive A2A/SEAD weapons mix and up to a 2:1 (16 total bombs) improvement in A2G cleanup shots.
          So that you can kill the S-400 Tombstone at 60nm with a lofted SHARK (Silent Hard Kill = pre-emission engagement using UAV/Satellite handoff) attack. Before closing up to 30nm to spike the TEL vehicles. Engaging a J-10 or Su-30MK type threat somewhere inbetween then being a function of time as much as munition reserves.

          • LEG

            Once the F-35 has fulfilled it’s LO advantaged mission set, -then- you flow in the Legacy platforms to accomplish the theater objective. Which is to say that it’s better to have a bunch of small bombs in the weapon magazines (more total DMPI) whch can do -both- the CAS and DEAD point target elimination. Than it is to have half as many, 2,000lb, building killers which are vastly overpowered for the kinds of expeditionary warfare we do today.
            Comparitively, the GBU-12/49/31/32 as well as AMRAAM and Sidewinder have nothing to do with these kinds of mission capabilities whatsoever because they are all weapons whose operative conceptualization lay back in the 1980s when we had separate mission platforms for accomplishing the Weasel and Hard Kill elements of SEAD as well as Close Escort and TARCAP Sweep.
            Those days are gone, the F-35C will be lucky to be produced in numbers adequate for a single squadron per deck and the PRC are anything but stupid. They will do all they can to divide and deny synergies of mission between the various service airpower contributors.
            We are qualifying an IOC JSF aircraft with dated and functionally worthless weapons choices for the Pacific Pivot.

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