As mentioned earlier, the operational testing process requires 23 aircraft. Modifications to bring the test fleet up to date have dragged on for years and will not be complete before the IOT&E process is scheduled to begin. One of the reasons for this delay is that a few of the operational test aircraft have been pulled to supplement the developmental test fleet to help test the fixes for the ever-growing number of test-discovered design deficiencies. Yet during this time, the program produced 235 new aircraft to send to squadrons in the operational force. At the very least, this gives the impression that officials are prioritizing buying underdeveloped aircraft needing fixes to send to the fleet. The priority should be completing the design and the developmental tests.
Despite the public relations pronouncements that the F-35 has achieved “Initial Operational Capability,” the program is actually still in the Low Rate Initial Production phase. The three main purposes of LRIP is to complete manufacturing development, build an adequate number of vehicles for testing purposes, and demonstrate their producibility. Per the Defense Department’s acquisition instructions: “LRIP quantities will be the minimum needed to provide production representative test articles for operational test and evaluation (OT&E) (as determined by DOT&E for MDAPS or special interest programs), to establish an initial production base for the system and provide efficient ramp up to full-rate production, and to maintain continuity in production pending completion of operational testing.”
In at least one respect, the program appears to be failing to meet the LRIP criteria, in that the production base has so far fallen short. The program’s current low availability rates are a direct result of the rush to get the aircraft out to the fleet: in that rush, the fact that the design was still immature and deficiency-ridden was ignored. Many factors impact the availability rate of an aircraft fleet, including maintenance downtime (Not Mission Capable–Maintenance) and aircraft-in-depot status for modifications or major repairs. DOT&E reports that the single biggest reason behind the F-35’s poor availability rate is a lack of spare parts (Not Mission Capable-Supply). DOT&E says program officials made overly optimistic forecasts about the kinds and numbers of replacement parts: the program had designed a stock of spare parts based on how reliable they hoped the F-35 would be rather than on actual flight data and experience. Had the program completed the design and testing process before moving into large-scale production, leaders would have gathered the necessary maintenance data to order adequate parts for the fleet. On average in 2017, 21 percent of F-35s were non-mission capable because they were waiting for replacement parts that had not been bought and stocked.
New aircraft should not have high maintenance costs. As aircraft age, the costs to maintain them usually increase. Parts naturally wear down and oftentimes major overhauls become necessary. But systems like the F-35 show that high maintenance costs for new, overly complex systems are often baked in from the start.
The concurrency problem will only be compounded as more and more aircraft are produced. The services will receive 90 new F-35s in 2018. The testing office warns of the folly of a concurrent procurement strategy in these terms:
“IOT&E, which provides the most credible means to predict combat performance, likely will not be completed until the end of 2019, at which point over 600 aircraft will already have been built.”
The GAO has reported that the known costs to retrofit all the F-35s that had then been purchased up to FY 2017 would total nearly $1.77 billion, almost certainly a large underestimate. As more and more aircraft are purchased and the testing process reveals more and more design flaws that need fixing, these costs will only rise.
The 2017 DOT&E report shows that after 17 years the Joint Strike Fighter Program is still falling far short of combat effectiveness expectations while it continues to experience painful schedule slippages and major cost increases. Congress needs to reconsider its plans to accelerate the funneling of money into increased production of still more untested and incompletely developed F-35s—at least until the approved developmental testing phase has been funded and completed. The Joint Program Office’s proposal to substitute a “continuous capability development and delivery” phase, which is now expected to cost at least $16 billion, needs to be rejected. Instead, the complete testing program agreed to between the Program Office and DOT&E must be carried out before the next stage—IOT&E—is begun. Throughout the process, accurate and objective assessments of the tests and their results must be reported honestly to Congress, the President, and the Secretary of Defense, as has been the case this year and at least since 2001.
The pressure from the Pentagon and Congress, both of which have advocated increased rather than decreased concurrency, to continue protecting “acquisition malpractice” is clearly building. How ironic it is that officials and politicians who sell themselves as advocates of “fly before you buy” are, in fact, approving and funding the exact opposite. When the complete F-35 program history is written, those who favored political expediency over integrity and improving America’s defenses should be forever named and shamed accordingly.
Despite all of the effort, time, and money—17 years and over $133 billion—spent to date on the F-35 program, it is doubtful it will ever live up to the lavish promises made all those years ago when the Defense Department and Congress committed to the program. Hidden within the pages of the DOT&E report is this litotic summation:
“Finally and most importantly, the program will likely deliver Block 3F [the untested, allegedly “fully combat-capable” F-35 model now entering production] to the field with shortfalls in capabilities the F-35 needs in combat against current threats.”
This article originally appeared on the Project for Government oversight.