“THE PROJECT ON GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT”
“Inside-the-Beltway wisdom holds that the $1.4 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is too big to cancel and on the road to recovery.
But the latest report from the Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) provides a litany of reasons that conventional wisdom should be considered politically driven propaganda.
The press has already reported flawed software that hinders the ability of the plane to employ weapons, communicate information, and detect threats; maintenance problems so severe that the F-35 has an “overdependence” on contractor maintainers and “unacceptable workarounds” (behind paywall) and is only able to fly twice a week; and a high-rate, premature production schedule that ignores whether the program has demonstrated essential combat capabilities or proven it’s safe to fly.
All of these problems are increasing costs and risks to the program. Yet rather than slow down production to focus resources on fixing these critical problems, Congress used the year-end continuing resolution omnibus appropriations bill—termed the “cromnibus”—to add 4 additional planes to the 34 Department of Defense (DoD) budgeted for Fiscal Year 2015.
The original FY2016 plan significantly increased the buy to 55, and now the program office is further accelerating its purchase of these troubled planes to buy 57 instead.
At some point, the inherent flaws and escalating costs of a program become so great that even a system with massive political buy-in reaches a tipping point. The problems described in the DOT&E report show that the F-35 has reached a stage where it is now obvious that the never-ending stream of partial fixes, software patches, and ad hoc workarounds are inadequate to deliver combat-worthy, survivable, and readily employable aircraft.
This year’s DOT&E report also demonstrates that in an effort to maintain the political momentum of the F-35, its program office is not beneath misrepresenting critically important characteristics of the system.
In sum, the old problems are not going away, new issues are arising, and some problems may be getting worse.
The F-35 is years away from being ready for initial operational capability. To send this airplane on a combat deployment, or to declare it ready to be sent, as early as the Marines’ 2015 or the Air Force’s 2016 IOC dates, is a politically driven and irresponsible mistake. DOT&E’s report shows that the current IOC plans for the F-35A and B should be rejected as unrealistic. Without meaningful oversight from the Department of Defense or Congress, however, these IOC declarations will go unchallenged.
The F-35 program is designed so that there is no requirement to prove its combat capability before approving an annual production rate of 57 aircraft, a rate unprecedented for any fighter with so little operational testing accomplished and so many unresolved problems. Further production of the F-35 at this point, let alone an increase in already high and unwarranted production rates, is unsupported by the DOT&E data. But that data is being ignored to continue funding a politically driven acquisition program.
The F-35’s unrealistic production and IOC schedule is divorcing the declaration of initial operating capability from operational reality. Deferring combat capabilities, increasing future costs, and increasing the risk of delivering seriously deficient combat effectiveness mandates revising the current schedules for IOC and for production ramp-up. Further accelerating a program with this many major design, safety, and reliability problems is a disservice to our people in uniform who have to fly, maintain, and go to war with this weapons system.
Despite Congress’s rhetoric regarding reform and accountability, they are rewarding the cooking of data, reckless program concurrency, and disasterous acquisition management by aproving and funding the F-35’s current path. Their accession and approval will ensure that future acquisition programs have even worse outcomes.”