GAO F-35 Report: It's bad.

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report on the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter earlier this week, and the results were fairly predictable to anyone who has been paying attention to the program in the last few years.

The report can be found here.

The general gist of it?  The F-35 is going to be late, and it's going to take a lot more money.  The very first page states, in big letters:
Problems Completing Software Testing May Hinder Delivery of Expected Warfighting Capabilities
It's not all bad, however.  The report actually praises the "flight sciences" aspect of testing, meaning that the aircraft is meeting most of the goals associated with hardware, like taking off, flying, dropping bombs, and landing.
 The program accomplished nearly all of the flight sciences testing, including weapons testing, it had planned for 2013.
Progress has been made on the troublesome tail hook, the STOVL system seems to work well, and the aircraft has no issues with high angle-of-attack flight.  Bulkhead cracks in the F-35B are still an issue, with questions regarding to how long, and how expensive they will be to fix.

Where the F-35 runs into trouble, however, is software.


 The JSF's finicky ALIS (autonomic logistics information system) is prone to errors, and worst still, impossible to override.  Technicians are having go out of their way to find work arounds, adding time and money to the maintenance bill.

The F-35's fancy helmet mounted display is showing improvement, but it still has issues with its night vision camera.

The "Block 2B" software, required to enable initial operational capability (IOC) for the USMC, is "behind schedule and will likely delay the delivery of expected warfighting capabilities."  As of January, 27% of the software was to be verified, only 13% was ready.  This could lead to a possible 13 month delay, pushing it August 2016.  

Delays in getting the software right will lead to the need for additional testing.  Additional testing means higher costs and slower production.

Not that the JSF needs the additional costs.

The report states that:  "Program funding projections and unit cost targets may not be achievable".  At its current rate, the JSF acquisition program will require $12.6 billion per year, every year until 2037.  This gobbles up ¼ of the Pentagon's procurement budget.  The sustainment cost exceeds $1 trillion (triple that originally planned).  Both figures are completely unaffordable in the current fiscal climate.  It would also severely jeopardize other large scale projects, like the KC-46 tanker and the Next Generation Bomber.

GAO does state that F-35 unit costs have come down since initial production started, but the price still needs to drop.  "Anywhere from $41 million to $49 million in unit costs reductions".  While the F-35A and F-35C dropped in unit price, the STOVL F-35B actually increased in price by nearly $10 million.

As for its long term costs, both the F-35A and F-35B were unable to meet reliability targets.  If this persists, maintenance costs will increase further, or flying hours will need to be cut.

The software is buggy, and the aircraft is unaffordable as things currently stand.

The GAO Report's recommendation?
Due to the uncertainty surrounding the delivery of F-35 software capabilities, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense conduct an assessment of the specific capabilities that realistically can be delivered and those that will not likely be delivered to each of the services by their established initial operational capability dates. 
That means it is time to have a cold hard look at the F-35.  The software troubles need to be fixed, and the costs need to come down.  Soon.  

If not, the F-35 could very well be doing the Zombie Shuffle.


  1. First off, if General Bogdan quits, this aircraft is done. He seems to care enough to want to see it succeed.

    Second, I've asked myself how can LM, who has a decent track record (C130, F16, F22) botch this so bad? Ok, complexity. Maybe they feel the sting of the F22 project. Great aircraft, top notch, world class and over 700 potential orders. 178 and it's done by the pentagon. The F35 is LM payback. Perfect plan to have them all ready when the 3000th airframe rolls out.

    The Navy may of been better off navalizing the F22 before the production line ran dry and use the SH as the ground pounders. Leaving the long term fleet defence with the F35 is not my idea of a bright move.

  2. I still don't fully blame Lockheed Martin for the JSF mess.

    The idea to combine so many different aircraft replacements (F-16, F-18, A-10, AV-8, etc) into one platform was politically motivated. Looking back, the JSF should have been at least two separate airframes instead of one. One to replace the F-16 and F-18, another to replace the A-10 and AV-8.

    At this point, LockMart's share prices are dependent on the F-35's fate, so they will defend it tenaciously.

  3. Is LM willing to share all the software on the
    F35 with its potential foreign customers? I dunno, maybe Pentagon software is
    not their strong suit. Did the Iranians [and their friends] not control down a
    perfectly intact RQ 170 drone recently?

    These spiralling costs related to software and
    everything else are alarming enough, but one can only hope that part of a new
    specification after the reset button is that all potential vendors must entirely
    supply coding on their software etc.

  4. If Lockheed Martin wanted a cost efficient plane would they have spread the contracts over 46 different US states not to mention 8 international partners?
    There's no way that this has anything to do with keeping costs under control it's all pork barrel politics. They have effectively bought off the political elite in the US meaning the show must go on regardless of whether the F-35 is any good.

  5. Let's consider again the issue of sales. LM have got Japan and South Korea on board but this doesn't even cover the existing cuts in orders in the UK, Italy and Netherlands let alone possibly even more cuts in Italy and Turkey.
    Then there's Canada and Denmark which might not take any at all!
    But mostly the US. Supposedly the USAF is buying 1,763. But at the moment they're only flying 1,520 F-16s, F-15Es and A-10s and we know that either the A-10 fleet or 350 F-16s are about to be retired. That leaves a maximum order of 1,200 in reality and maybe less if there are more cuts to come.
    And the US Navy. If anyone was acting like they really don't want this plane it's the US Navy. But even if they do have to take it there's a very high likelihood that the carrier fleet will be cut by at least 1 in the next couple of years.
    So overall it's reasonably safe to assume the US total of F-35 orders will be at least 600 short of the total being projected. What does that do to costs?


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