The F-35 Has 966 "Still-Unresolved Design Flaws"

September 6, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35MilitaryTechnologyWorldStealth

The F-35 Has 966 "Still-Unresolved Design Flaws"

A new report outlines what could be a major setback for the $1 Trillion dollar stealth fighter. 

acquisition regulations state that all critical deficiencies must be resolved before a program can proceed beyond low-rate initial production unless the official with milestone decision authority approves a deviation. In the case of the F-35, Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, has the authority to make the decision to insist on fixing crucial design flaws first or to push the program forward without fixes.

Hundreds of design flaws

This snapshot of how the F-35 program office deals—or doesn’t deal—with design deficiencies comes shortly after the Government Accountability Office released its annual assessment of the program, identifying the 966 unresolved design flaws. The report has the puzzlingly contradictory subtitle “Development is Nearly Complete, but Deficiencies Found in Testing Need to be Resolved.”

“If deficiencies have emerged during development that are still unresolved, then development is manifestly not nearly complete,” Thomas Christie, a director of operational test and evaluation during the George W. Bush Administration, told POGO.

F-35 officials have been saying for months that the program will finally wrap up the development phase later this year. It has taken the better part of two decades to get to this point. The GAO report lays out in stark terms just how far off-track the program has gone since its inception at the end of the last century.

According to the 2003 F-35 program baseline, the development phase was to have been completed before 2010, with the services receiving 1,966 aircraft by 2019. The realities of producing an aircraft meant to incorporate a vast array of unproven technologies quickly asserted themselves, and annual F-35 production figures dropped precipitously as costs climbed.

When F-35 officials arbitrarily call an end to the development phase of the program in September, they will really just be procrastinating on the inevitably needed development work—and its attendant cost-overrun funding.

Failing to address these design flaws now threatens the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation process set to begin September 2018. This field-testing phase will be used to determine whether or not the F-35 will be adequately effective in realistic combat scenarios. It will also be used to see whether the entire system, including maintenance and logistics, is supportable and can deliver adequate fleet availability and reliability in the hands of the troops.

Evaluators independent of the services will analyze the results of these operational tests for the Pentagon’s top weapons testing official, the director of operational test and evaluation, who will then report them directly to the secretary of defense and Congress.

By federal law, full-rate production cannot begin until the testing director submits a report stating “whether the results of such test and evaluation confirm that the items or components actually tested are effective and suitable for combat.” For the F-35 program, the “low-rate” in “low-rate initial production” has become a nebulous term. Lockheed Martin is funded to deliver 90 deficiency-ridden F-35s this year.

That figure is hardly “low” when it represents 56 percent of the expected 160 aircraft per year to be delivered in the full-rate production runs currently scheduled to begin in 2023.

F-35 program officials plan to address these issues after the current development phase in their newly invented and ill-defined Follow-on Modernization phase, previously known as Block 4, and now sometimes called “Continuous Capability Development and Delivery.”

Whatever name the new phase goes by, in practice it is nothing more than a continuation of the peremptorily ended development phase that will also add more new and untested technologies to the system—all hidden under the “Continuous Delivery Development and Delivery” framework that deliberately eliminates scheduled milestones for delivery of well-defined, specific capabilities.

Cutting off development and substituting a new, vaguely scheduled modernization phase is the F-35 program office’s device for not admitting further major cost overruns and schedule slippages, given that Congress has already paid for multiple research and development overruns and has repeatedly criticized the program’s many years of stretch-outs.

Questions remain as to whether the program will ever have the capacity to complete all the necessary development-phase design fixes—capacity that involves augmenting system-integration labs, mission software labs, test aircraft, test-flight hours, and testing personnel.

Because of all the risky, undeveloped technologies that fail to perform as promised and have been concurrently incorporated into the F-35’s design, the program never had enough capacity in these areas even at the outset of the current development phase.

That and the 966 still-unresolved design flaws are the major reasons the program has fallen so many years behind schedule. It is unclear how program officials intend to address the mountain of deficiencies while also developing new, untested capabilities and keeping to their schedule to begin full-rate production in 2023. Their current solution, as the Deficiency Review Board meeting minutes show, is to wave them away with paper and pen.