The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is moving in the right direction, but is still at “financial risk” according to the government’s watchdog.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), in a new report on the fifth-generation fighter released Monday, said the program has achieved seven of the 10 “key management objectives” that were set for 2012. But the program is now entering a new phase of rising costs, at the same time that budgets are expected to drop across DoD.
Funding requirements for the program will average $12.6 billion a year through 2037, according to GAO figures, with costs spiking in the $16 billion range from 2021 to 2027.
“The program continues to incur financial risk from its plan to procure 289 aircraft for $57.8 billion before completing development flight testing,” GAO found. “Meanwhile, the services are spending about $8 billion to extend the life of existing aircraft and to buy new ones to mitigate shortfalls due to F-35 delays.”
Overall, however, the F-35 program saw steady improvement.
For instance, GAO declared the majority of testing, demonstration and verification of performance objectives is ahead of where the program expected to be at the end of 2012.
Meanwhile, manufacturing is becoming more efficient, which is helping to drive down costs in the program, even for required retrofits to older models produced under the concurrency strategy. That drive-down in retrofit costs were acknowledged by Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan in comments last week. Bogdan heads the JSF program.
While gains were made in 2017, there is significant work ahead for the program.
“Just over 11 percent of development contract performance specifications have been verified as met and the development flight test program has cumulatively accomplished just over one-third of the rest points and test flights planned,” according to GAO.
The F-35 Joint Program Office identified 10 objectives for 2012. The seven objectives they met included the completion of the Block 1A and 1B Development Test and Evaluation; the improvement on production costs for low rate initial production (LRIP) lot 3 to LRIP-4; and the start of pilot training on the F-35A CTOL variant, designed for the U.S. Air Force, and the F-35B jump-jet version designed for the U.S. Marines.
The program failed to meet three objectives:
the delivery of 40 aircraft (only 30 were delivered)
the completion of an audit from the Defense Contracting Management Agency (DCMA)
the completion of Block 3 Critical Design Review (CDR) 1
However, GAO notes that the program completed the CDR in January, just two months after it was supposed to have been finished.
Test flights were a mixed bag, according to the GAO.
The program exceeded the number of test flights by 18 percent, but fell short of the test points that needed to be completed by three percent — which GAO suggested “that the flights flown were not as productive as expected.”
That mirrors complaints raised in a recent DT&E report which found it was difficult for pilots to train on the plane due to maturity issues with the technology, including malfunctioning radars and the inability to fly in weather conditions.
“Due to the immaturity of the aircraft, the workarounds required to support flight operations, and very limited mission systems capability little knowledge can be gained from the [operational utility evaluation] applicable to F-35 sustainment under normal squadron training operations or to sustainment of combat capable aircraft in operational units,” a March 7 report said.