F-35 Program Takes Heat from GAO

The U.S. Congress and military divisions are not cooperating to shrink the gap between defunct and usable jetfighters.
Currently, the bulk of the military fleet is the F/A-18 Hornet-Super Hornet fighter plane. The problem is that this model is being phased out — currently, units are being sold to the foreign forces of countries including Spain, Finland and Israel.

This is where the Joint Strike Fighter Program (JSF) comes into play, a competition that resulted in the selection of the F-35 Lightning II to replace the aging F/A-18s.

According to the JSF’s website, the purpose of the program is to “deliver and sustain the most advanced, affordable strike fighter aircraft to protect future generations worldwide.”

The competition consisted of a 10-year System Development and Demonstration phase.

The construction of F-35s is led by prime contractor Lockheed Martin, an aeronautical engineering company and defense contractor that has reached out to foreign developers for input in the process. Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems are partners.

Despite potential risks, the Pentagon has estimated sales of up to 6,000 F-35s due to the turnover of older jet models, like the F/A-18. Around 3,200 F-35s are planned to be sold to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), according to Tom Burbage, Vice President of Lockheed.

Congressional review services have been finicky about recommending unsupervised support of the JSF and have called for budget restraints.

The potential result is an uncompromising gap in the U.S. fleet that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly deemed a significant problem.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a U.S. House budgetary investigation and evaluation watchdog, argued in its most recent annual report on the subject that the development timeline of the fighter as well as its estimated costs are greatly undetermined, and thus a production schedule cannot feasibly be set in stone and the current budget must be scrutinized.  

In the May 20 report, GAO noted that the F-35 program is the most expensive currently being handled by the DOD, and seeks to supply aircrafts to not only domestic agencies — the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — but also to 8 foreign copartners.

In 2008, 58% of Lockheed’s sales went to the DOD, or almost $22.8 billion.

In summary, the report projected: “The total expected U.S. investment is now more than $300 billion to develop and procure 2,456 aircraft over the next 25 years.”

It costs $83 million to build a single F-35 and the GAO is worried that current cost-reimbursement contracts creates a large financial risk for the government, which is responsible for purchasing large numbers of F-35s. The GAO instead recommends fixed-price contracts, which would require specific figures from the contractors and a more restrained budget.

The GAO is cautious, warning that while the price and development of the already employed F/A-18 or F-22 models is known, legislating funding for F-35s is a murky and cost-blind leap forward:

“A recurring theme in our work has been concern about what we believe is undue concurrency of development, test, and production activities and the heightened risk it poses to achieving good cost, schedule, and performance outcomes.”

According to the report, significant flight tests have not yet been carried out and serious testing will begin only in 2010-2012.

One of the main complaints of the GAO is that JSF costs have skyrocketed since a statement to the Congress in April 2008, because of testing delays and contract difficulties.

Essentially, the GAO wants a “constrained budget environment.”

Military development spending may lag under the cautious and skeptical Obama administration. Obama has already discouraged the DOD from buying more F-22 Raptors, which have a unit cost of $137.5 million and are contracted by Lockheed as well. Obama has also labeled the development of an alternative F-35 engine by the JSF “wasteful spending.”

He has not ruled out a veto on both proposals.

The GAO is critical of the DOD for a number of reasons. In the May 20 report delivered by Michael Sullivan, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management of the GAO, he calls the JSF program “extremely risky” and notes that it is hazardous to project large-scale production of an aircraft model that has yet to be fully proven or tested.

The report recommends that the contractor produce a detailed production schedule and fixed-price contracts for production quantities.

Some conservatives have reacted strongly to the GAO report, arguing that it attempts to meddle with the progress of military intelligence and development by stripping the armed forces of updated jets, making national defense more vulnerable and less responsive to foreign attack.

Of course, if Obama vetoes a proposal to build additional F-22s or legislature significantly cuts down the JSF budget, progress will be slowed in terms of replacing the aging and dwindling jet fleet.

But the JSF is working feverishly to finish the project and has significantly cut down on testing in order to finish the F-35s. As the GAO points out, simultaneously producing and developing the jets may yield dangerous results.

Perhaps more oversight needs to be given to the project — that is, a more definite timeline of production and contracting specifications need to be drawn for fruitful progress to be made — before the DOD invests enormous sums in independent firms that have their own profit margin in mind ahead of rationally and considerately expediting the flustered development process.

If the DOD embarks on a major contract for military equipment, then it should establish clear and precise cost and development expectations with the contractors with which it is cooperating. Otherwise, if progress is substantially delayed or funding drained due to ineffective and myopic negotiations, then the U.S. will not only incur greater costs, but will be left without an adequate jet fleet.  
At the same time, rash budget restraints may fatally impede development of a much-needed updated fleet and make the U.S. more unstable in an era of high-stakes military operations. In this sense, maybe the best source of advice on the topic is the military experts and technical contractors, not the bureaucratic legislative watchdog GAO.  

For the complete report, click here.