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. 

learn that these lists are quite extensive. They include a total of 888 initiatives spanning three broad categories: development, production and sustainment.

A number of the ideas are gambits to reduce accountability for program performance. The development initiatives include a proposal to slash the testing program by 3,800 test points, in a move the program office estimates would shave off about 10 months’ worth of flight tests. The production initiatives mainly deal with the block-buy proposal, but also include 244 manufacturing and material improvements for an estimated $234.6 million in savings.

The biggest effort by far is on the program’s long-term sustainment. Officials claim the program has already identified $60.7 billion in potential savings, through 514 initiatives, with future savings yet to be determined. Only time will tell if these efforts will actually bear any fruit—or whether these fruits will be buried under the major overruns associated with fixing 966 deficiencies.

The affordability plan fails to address the fact that the F-35s we have now and are continuing to buy have known design flaws that must be fixed in the future, one of the inevitable penalties of concurrency. Nearly 300 F-35s have thus far been delivered to the services. All of these aircraft—plus the additional 300 aircraft scheduled to be acquired before the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation final report declares whether or not the plane is combat-suitable—will require myriad fixes for current deficiencies, not to mention for the many future defects will likely be discovered during the more stringent operational tests.

The GAO estimates—based on unaudited numbers—that the program will end up spending at least another $1.4 billion to retrofit design corrections into aircraft purchased early in the production cycle. Indeed, the program has already spent more than that retrofitting F-35s to fix design flaws: the Pentagon has spent more than $1.5 billion upgrading F-35s since 2012. The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act alone includes $305 million to retrofit design corrections into F-35s recently purchased and delivered.

While the F-35’s sticker price tends to draw the most attention, its ownership costs are what may ultimately doom the program. The costs to sustain the program have already risen so much that Pentagon leaders are considering cutting the Air Force’s planned F-35 fleet by a third, or 590 aircraft, simply to have any hope of balancing the books.

The April 2018 contract awarded to Lockheed Martin just for its piece of sustaining the services’ existing F-35 fleet illustrates how ownership costs could be so high. Lockheed will be paid $1.4 billion for one year of providing “air system maintenance; pilot and maintainer training; depot activation; sustaining engineering; Automatic Logistics Information System support, data analytics and predictive health management; supply chain logistics and more.”

The contract supports 280 F-35s, at $5 million per aircraft for a single year. When the fleet grows to the current plan’s 2,443 aircraft, the American people can expect to pay Lockheed Martin $12.2 billion a year to keep the aircraft flying.

This problem is not unique to the F-35. The government awarded Lockheed Martin a similar contract in December 2017 for the F-22 fighter jet, at more than $3.7 million per airframe per year. Of course, that followed right on the heels of Pratt & Whitney winning a contract to sustain the F-22’s F-119 engines. That contract provides for nearly $4.5 million per aircraft, just for the engines. That works out to $8.2 million per year to sustain each F-22.

Because government contracting officials negotiated a poor deal for the American people by not acquiring the intellectual property rights for the F-35 program, or the F-22, Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney hold all the cards in future negotiations over upgrades and annual sustainment.

To take one example, the F-35 cannot operate without the Autonomic Logistics Information System. This complex, extremely troubled computer network combines combat-mission planning, threat analysis, maintenance diagnosis, supply shipments, and scheduling. Lockheed Martin owns and operates the network, which means that without Lockheed, the services cannot fly the aircraft they supposedly own.

Until the government acquires the data rights for the program, there’s no option but to continue paying Lockheed Martin pretty much whatever it demands. Without addressing the matter of intellectual property rights, any of the government’s attempts to rein in the program’s costs are bound to amount to very little in the grand scheme of things.

While any effort to reduce the costs of this monumentally wasteful program is to be applauded, the F-35 Affordability Study itself is quite revealing of one of the program’s fundamental problems. The F-35 program office claims this study “has instilled a culture of cost consciousness to ensure decisions at all levels of the program take into account the cost impact of each decision made.”

Why did officials wait until 2017 to do