The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program faces a bevy of serious issues that have the potential to further drive up costs and to significantly add to delays to the program, according to the findings of a high-level Pentagon review completed in November 2011. The report containing the results of the "F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Concurrency Quick Look Review" was obtained by POGO, which first made the report available to the public[click here to view the report below the jump]. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio first reported on the report’s findings.
Although the Quick Look Review (QLR) team did not identify any “fundamental design risks sufficient to preclude further production,” thirteen major issues were found. In sum, according to the report:
Five issues were found where major consequence issues have been identified, but root cause, corrective action or fix effectivity are still in development: Helmet Mounted Display System, Fuel Dump Subsystem, Integrated Power Package, Arresting Gear System (CV variant) and a classified issue [Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman believes the “classified issue” refers to something related to the JSF’s stealth capability]. Three issues were found where potentially major consequence discovery is likely pending outcomes of further discovery: Buffet, Fatigue Life, and Test Execution. Five issues were found where consequence or cost is moderate, but the number of moderate issues poses a cumulative concurrency risk: Software, Weight Management, Thermal Concerns, Autonomic Logistics Information System and Lightning Protection.
Given that the F-35 is in an early stage of flight testing, the QLR team believes it is likely more problems will come to light.
More problems threaten to exacerbate the already spiraling costs of the F-35, which has already been set back by years of delays and double digit cost growth. The F-35 is the world’s most expensive weapons program, currently estimated to cost some $385 billion for development and production, and about $1 trillion to maintain and operate F-35 aircraft over decades.
The review called into question the large amount of “concurrency” built into the F-35 program. Concurrency is the practice of procuring some quantity of a weapon system before it’s been fully developed and tested. Buying more, early while a program is still in development means there is more concurrency. “Concurrency is present to some degree in virtually all DoD programs, though not to the extent that it is on the F-35,” the report notes, adding that “the F-35 program began procurement in FY07 before flying the first developmental aircraft (BF-1) in FY08.” POGO has long argued that excessive concurrency is a bad deal for taxpayers and has advocated that the U.S. “fly before it buys.”
Relatively large numbers of F-35s are being procured even though the program is early in its development and testing, which means when problems are discovered, the relatively large number of already-procured planes have to undergo costly retrofits. The large number of retrofits and changes concerned the QLR team:
…the quantity of major Change Requests (CRs) from June 2010 to November 2011 is a concern. Currently, there are 725 change requests which are in the process at the engineering kickoff stage, 696 change requests at the engineering release stage, 538 change requests awaiting manufacturing bill of materials (MBOM) release, and 148 change requests available awaiting implementation. Therefore, of the 725 change requests that have been at the engineering kickoff stage, 577 are still not yet available to implement. These figures are indicative of the large volume of change traffic on this program and low design maturity.
The QLR team essentially urged the F-35 program to go slowly and make production decisions based on how the aircraft does in testing. Additionally, they recommended that assessments of concurrency for the three different variants of the F-35 be considered separately because they have substantially different designs and expectations for when they will be developed, tested, and produced.
Prominent critics did not mince words in reaction to the report. “The new revelations are numerous and significant enough to call into question whether F-35 production should be suspended—if not terminated—even in the minds of today's senior managers in the Pentagon,” stated Winslow Wheeler, a former veteran Senate staffer and current director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the non-profit Center for Defense Information, in an email describing the report’s results. Former Pentagon analyst Franklin “Chuck” Spinney told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Bob Cox that the problems, when taken together, “are a showstopper."
The United States also has several international partners who are paying for some development costs and planning on buying F-35s. Those partners are watching the program closely. One of those is Australia. Carlo Kopp of Air Power Australia, a think tank that has been critical of the F-35, told POGO, “The program is clearly beyond repair, as the QLR shows that the problems in the design are deep and systemic. Bandaiding is not going to yield a viable product.”
But just as significant is report language that calls into question many of the F-35’s capabilities.
“Performance vis-à-vis so called ‘legacy’ aircraft is seriously questioned,” Wheeler added. “Legacy “ aircraft refer to the planes the F-35 is intended to replace, such as the F-16, F/A-18, A-10 and other planes.
According to the report, there is a concern about “the lack of certain legacy aircraft CAS [close air support] capabilities on the F-35.” Furthermore:
The operational testers cited unsatisfactory progress and the likelihood of severe operational impacts for survivability, lethality, air vehicle performance, and employment. These conclusions were driven by certain classified issues, critical performance criteria for the helmet mounted display, air vehicle performance, and air-to-air weapons employment.”
Check out the full report here:
Nick Schwellenbach is POGO's Director of Investigations.
Image via Flickr user Mohamed A.El-Kady.