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Cost of Malpractice on F-35 Goes Unpaid

Feb. 26, 2012 - 03:47PM   |  
By Lawrence Korb   |   Comments
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In any profession when there is malpractice, the person or persons who commit the offense are held accountable. They lose their jobs or their licenses or resign from sheer embarrassment.

But this is apparently not the case in the military industrial complex when it comes to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive program in the history of the Pentagon, whose unit costs have risen from $69 million to $159 million and whose initial operational capability has been set back at least five years.

It is no wonder that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, correctly called the F-35 program a scandal and tragedy. On Feb. 6, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, finally admitted the real reason that the process of developing and producing the F-35 was so disastrous was “acquisition malpractice.”

Question of Accountability

To be sure, the problems facing the F-35 have become apparent since Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract to build the plane in 2001. But who will be held accountable? McCain correctly demanded that Lockheed be held accountable for technical problems and cost spikes. But Kendall did not mention the role of people in the Defense Department, including himself, in the scandal, tragedy and malpractice.

In the summer of 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates proudly announced that the most serious problems facing the F-35 were over, that most of the high-risk elements associated with the program were largely behind us, and that the plane was ready to move into full production.

And who advised Gates that these problems had been overcome? Ashton Carter, then the top weapons buyer, and Kendall, then his top deputy.

Gates’ reason for making the malpractice decision was transparent. In early 2009, he had affirmed his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to stop production of the F-22 at 187 planes and was seeking to send the message that the F-35 would not suffer the same fate.

What happened to Gates and his top aides who committed this malpractice? Gates stepped down two years later, after serving about 4½ years as secretary of defense. Upon leaving, he was heralded as one of the most capable secretaries of defense in history and is now writing a book about his accomplishments.

And both Carter and Kendall have been promoted. Carter has been given the Pentagon’s No. 2 job, the deputy secretary of defense, and Kendall has been nominated to take Carter’s job as undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

The F-35 continues to have problems. In 2010, Gates had to stop production of the F-35B, the vertical-takeoff-and-landing version, putting it on a two-year probation.

Lockheed’s most recent contract for building 32 F-35 jets overran its target cost of $3.46 billion by $245 million, or 7 percent. As a result of the continuing problems with the F-35, Leon Panetta, Gates’ replacement as secretary of defense, along with Carter and Kendall, have made a “management decision” to slow production of the F-35 over the next two years.

Nonetheless, Lockheed will still receive $9.2 billion in the fiscal 2013 budget to build 29 planes, more than $300 million per aircraft. If anything, this will increase the cost, drive up profits for Lockheed, and keep Carter and Kendall managing this program and all the other weapons programs. So much for paying the price for malpractice.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

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