The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer denounced a previous U.S. Defense Department decision to start production of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter years before the tri-service jet’s first flight.
“Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice,” said acting Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall, speaking at a Feb. 6 event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It should not have been done.”
Kendall said that the Pentagon had made “optimistic” predictions about the capabilities of design tools, simulations and modeling to build a fighter that would breeze through test flights without problems.
“Now we’re paying the price for being wrong,” Kendall said.
Problems are cropping up on all three variants of the F-35 that would typically be expected in any highly ambitious next-generation fighter program, he said.
“We didn’t model everything as precisely as we thought,” Kendall said.
Transitioning from development to production is traditionally been one of the most difficult challenges for any program.
Kendall said there is a tendency to start production too early, adding that the F-35 is an “extreme example.”
Barry Watts, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., agreed with Kendall’s assessment.
“My understanding is the amount of concurrency on this program is as great as or greater than any past program,” he said.
Watts, who has been to Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas, plant, described long lines of F-35s already being built.
“Most of those, if they’re going to be operational airplanes eventually, are going to have to go back and have a bunch of changes made to them,” he said. “That drives up cost and delays things.”
Watts said that the Pentagon should have insisted on more flight tests before starting low rate initial production.
The F-35 is an extremely complicated engineering challenge with its many missions and three variants, Watts said.
“I guess my feeling is that they bit off a little more than they could chew,” he said. Pentagon officials should have raised these concerns earlier, Watts added.
But with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminating the F-22 Raptor program, the Pentagon “has put all of its eggs in the JSF basket,” he said.
Kendall said the Pentagon is fully committed to the F-35 program and nothing precludes production at a reasonable rate.
“Hopefully, we won’t see anymore serious problems emerge,” he said.
Lockheed Martin officials were unable to comment by press time.
Marcus Weisgerber contributed to this report