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. 

Follow-on Modernization program easily meets the criteria to qualify as a separate Major Defense Acquisition Program, but Pentagon officials have adamantly resisted efforts to classify it as such, likely because they do not want to be constrained by the budget caps, scheduled milestones, and detailed reporting requirements that would entail. Department of Defense regulations set the minimum threshold for an MDAP at either $480 million for research, development, and testing, or $2.79 billion for procurement. The most recent, though undoubtedly optimistic, estimates easily clear the bar, putting the cost of completing F-35 development under this scheme at $10.8 billion through 2024.

The average program unit cost for each F-35 has more than doubled, from $62.2 million at the program’s inception in 2001 to an average $158.4 million in 2018. It is also 12 years behind schedule. Establishing new budget and schedule goals for the program at this point would likely be too big an admission of failure for the Pentagon to endure, as it would create tremendous pressure for lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pull the plug on the entire endeavor.

The fact that it will take a quarter-century to complete the F-35’s design is evidence of the disastrous price we have paid for the Pentagon’s decision to initiate concurrent development and production of yet another weapons system that deliberately incorporates multiple undeveloped, untested technologies. Recent history provides several examples of programs with huge schedule slippages, cost overruns, and technological failures, with the F-111, C-5, B-70, B-1, B-2 and F-22 programs.

Frank Kendall, the former Pentagon acquisition chief, famously described the push to buy F-35s before the development process concludes as “acquisition malpractice.” Compounding the mistake of concurrency, the overlap of design and production, the Pentagon sold Congress on the F-35 in part with the idea of creating a common aircraft for three services, alleging it would save money—despite the well-documented and glaring failure of the tri-service F-111 program 25 years before Congress signed off on the very same plan with the F-35 in 2001.

As the doubling of the F-35’s acquisition cost clearly demonstrates, the American people are paying heavily for the misleading claim that the three F-35 versions would achieve 70-to-90-percent part-commonality when in fact they achieved 20-25 percent. Even Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the former F-35 program chief, cautioned against using joint programs in the future due to the difficulties and compromises associated with balancing the conflicting requirements of three different services, each with differing missions. As both the F-111 and F-35 have proven in practice, joint aircraft development programs lead to higher cost and underperforming designs.

888 cost-cutting initiatives

Efforts are now underway to rein in the program’s out-of-control costs.

In late 2016, then-president-elect Trump famously, and correctly, questioned the efficacy of the F-35 program before Pentagon officials got to him and he suddenly proclaimed it to be great. He now praises the aircraft, and even posed in front of one that had been trucked onto the White House lawn. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, have been highly critical of Lockheed Martin’s efforts at controlling costs.

This public pressure from within the Pentagon prompted the F-35 Joint Program Office to put together a report in early 2017 exploring ways to tamp down the runaway costs threatening to make the program unaffordable; POGO obtained a copy of the report through the Freedom of Information Act.

While the F-35 Affordability Study provides a clear picture of the program’s complexity, it offers a route to only modest and largely hypothetical savings.

For example, one proposal calls for executing a block buy — also known as an “Economic Order Quantity” — for the Low Rate Initial Production lots 12, 13 and 14 approved in last year’s defense authorization act subject to cost conditions. The program estimated that the commitment to a three-year buy would save approximately $2 billion. Along with the fact that entering into a three-year commitment to an aircraft unapproved for full production violates the spirit, if not the actual letter, of federal laws governing multiyear procurement plans, program officials likely overstated the savings by well over half.

By October 2017, the estimate had been revised down to $1.2 billion for the U.S. and the F-35 partner nations. The Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office threw cold water on even that estimate. In a letter first reported on by Inside Defense in June 2018, CAPE officials said the U.S. savings would likely be no more than $300 million, a mere 0.08 percent of the $400 billion total buy.

The document includes an annex detailing the initiatives the F-35 program office intends to use to get costs under control. It will probably not surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity with the F-35 program to