JSF Faces “Substantial Risk”

In a fabulous concurrence of conflicting signals, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he doesn't expect the Joint Strike Fighter program to incur cost overruns large enough for it to breach the Nunn-McCurdy threshold, which could have meant disastrous publicity for the plane. Schwartz also said the Pentagon has a plan to aggressively reduce program risk, increasing testing and slowing the move to production. But the director of Operational Test and Evaluation paints a very different picture, saying the program faces "substantial risk" over the next two years.

In a fabulous concurrence of conflicting signals, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he doesn’t expect the Joint Strike Fighter program to incur cost overruns large enough for it to breach the Nunn-McCurdy threshold, which could have meant disastrous publicity for the plane. Schwartz also said the Pentagon has a plan to aggressively reduce program risk, increasing testing and slowing the move to production. But the annual report from the director of Operational Test and Evaluation paints a very different picture, saying the program faces “substantial risk” over the next two years.

“Continued production concurrent with the slow increase in flight testing over the next two years will commit the DoD and Services to test, training, and deployment plans with substantial risk. Program management needs to emphasize maintaining robust engineering and test forces, early completion of detailed test plans, fully resourcing those plans, and rigorous accreditation of models and labs,” says the report by Michael Gilmore, OTE director. The report has just been briefed on Capitol Hill.

Schwartz told reporters at a conference put on by the Institute for Policy Analysis that the head of Pentagon acquisition, Ash Carter, had pushed a robust effort to reduce risk to the program. This, he said, will mean less concurrency, the wonky term that means the program builds and tests as it goes along instead of building a few test planes which are then used to figure out just what needs changing in production models.

“We came to the conclusion that the path we were on was too aggressive,” Schwartz said. The new plan, which will be made public in the next few weeks, will increase the amount of testing and slow the program down a bit. It will also, he admitted, result in higher per unit prices “for a period” for the early planes produced by the program.

Lockheed Martin F-35 spokesman Chris Geisel noted that the OTE report, which take some time to clear for release and can be dated, left out some “recent significant accomplishments: First flight of the optimized CTOL variant on 11/14/09; the ferry of the first of the first STOVL aircraft to PAX River on 11/15/09 and subsequent ferry of BF-2 on 12/29/09. Finally, and probably most significantly we engaged BF-1s STOVL propulsion system in flight on two different sorties for the first time in January. The successful tests are the first in a series of planned STOVL-mode flights that will include short takeoffs, hovers and vertical landings.”

With all the negative news about the F-35 over the last few months a growing chorus has been heard claiming that the program is in serious trouble. So I asked Schwartz if the JSF is in peril: “People should read this as an advanced high technology effort that is needed by then operational forces of a number of nations.” OK, it’s not an elegant or eloquent answer, but it gets to the heart of the matter. With F-16s aging fast the major NATO powers and some friends need a new plane and that’s the F-35 and it will be delivered in a reasonable timeframe, given how advanced the plane is.

He also said that some important F-35 systems are in much better shape at this stage in the program than they were at comparable points in the F-22 enterprise. Software, which caused huge problems for the F-22 and is often a major stumbling block for major acquisition programs, is “far better off” for the F-35 than it was for the F-22, Schwartz said.

At the same time, Schwartz conceded that the new plan will mean “less margin with regards to our aging force structure.” He described the relationship between F-16s and the F-35 as “pretty much nose to tail.”

That seems borne out by one of the tester’s comments. Gilmore says that completion of Block 3 capability “could occur in early to mid-2016” Winslow Wheeler, former defense budget expert on Capitol Hill, says that means the military won’t get operationally ready assets deployed until then. “Moreover, this assumes everything goes flawlessly in the fight testing that remains (which is a fool’s hope, I might add). In other words, delivery to our military forces in the field and at sea will be not just one but a few years late,” he said.

However, Lockheed’s Geisel said that while, “late deliveries of aircraft from production to flight test have impacted early test results, the program has turned the corner of both production and test and verification and we fully expect to complete developmental testing in the prescribed time frame (2014).”

For those allies growing increasingly worried about when they will get the JSF and just how much it will cost, Schwartz said his “bottom line” was that “they have to have trust in our keeping our promises.”