GAO: JSF’s affordability still a ‘major concern’

Program failed to meet 30 percent of management objectives calling the fifth generation fighter a "financial risk."

A U.S. government watch dog issued a report questioning the long term affordability of the F-35 just days after the head of the joint program office took the leading contractors — Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney — to task for not investing in cost controls for the aircraft.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report that offered hope for the Joint Strike Fighter saying the “current outlook is improved.” However, the investigators wrote that “long-term affordability is a major concern.”

Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, head of the JSF program office, said Lockheed Martin, the lead defense company, and Pratt & Whitney, makers of the engine, are trying to “squeeze every nickel out of that last F-35 and that last engine.”

“I want them both to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years,” Bogdan said Feb. 26 at the Australian International Airshow. “I want them to take on some of the risk of this program, I want them to invest in cost reductions, I want them to do the things that will build a better relationship. I’m not getting all that love yet.”

The program to build the fifth generation fighter will require an average of $12.6 billion through 2037, which the GAO  called an “unprecedented demand on the defense procurement budget.” As the Pentagon’s budget flattens off in coming years, the investigators questioned whether the U.S. will be able to continue to support the most expensive military weapons program in U.S. history.

A common refrain from critics of the program has been the large investment made into the program before flight testing is completed. GAO wrote that purchasing 298 aircraft and spending $57.8 billion provides a “financial risk.”

In 2012, the F-35 program office failed to meet three of the ten “key management objectives” that officials had set. Program team members failed to complete a Block 3 Critical Design Review 1, deliver 40 aircraft (it delivered 30), and complete an audit from the Defense Contracting Management Agency (DCMA).

While the JSF program office did complete 18 percent more test flights than originally expected, the GAO criticized the quality of the tests saying the F-35 failed to meet its test point goal by three percent in 2012.

GAO investigators did commend the program’s improvements for its manufacturing and supply processes. The authors of the report cited “factory throughput, labor efficiency and quality measures” as signs of progress.