Pentagon criticizes F-35 contractors but hands over the dough

New funds provided for the F35 just before sequester even though early tests show multiple problems

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Update, March 7, 11:09pm:  Early returns are in from the first major flight tests of the new F-35 jet fighter, and they are not pretty. The radar malfunctioned, the fancy helmet visor didn’t work properly, and the radio and navigation systems were hard to operate. It was difficult to get the test planes ready for flight and keep them aloft — with just four hours of flying time between critical failures, on average.

And did we mention that it was, well, hard for the pilots to see out of the cockpit?

These shortcomings are  listed in a 48-page, Feb. 15 Pentagon report obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit group in Washington, and published online this week. Signed by J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief testing officer, the report amounted to a detailed and damning “I told you so” by his office.

Gilmore had warned last July, in an earlier report leaked to outsiders, that the F-35 was not close to being ready for its “operational” flight tests. He said the plane’s many shortcomings at such an early stage of its development — it is just a third of the way along, he said — posed excessive risks for the pilots, and he expressed skepticism that the Air Force would learn much of anything useful.

The Air Force decided to start testing anyway, and sent four test pilots aloft in a total of 148 flights between September and November on nine different planes, all from a base on the Florida panhandle. The effort fell far short of a normal flight test series, Gilmore’s report noted, with the planes limited to “very basic aircraft handling, such as simple turns, climbs, and ascents,” and barred from flying at night, near lightning, or in clouds, close formation or with simulated engine stalls.

Even with these unusual constraints, the results were disappointing, according to Gilmore’s account. The radar system on one type of plane — which flew a total of six flights -— failed to operate at all on two of those, dropped targets on another, and functioned too slowly on a fourth. Pilots complained that the helmet visor’s critical data display was blurry, slow, not bright enough, or incomplete, all problems the Air Force is trying to fix. They said the special flight suit they wore was uncomfortably hot, even in moderate winter temperatures.

But most importantly, they said the lines of sight from the cockpit were poor — a fairly elemental design issue. The ejection seat headrest and something called the “canopy bow” often got in the way, as well as a shield meant to reduce glare. None have “the potential to be readily redesigned,” Gilmore said. Three of the four pilots expressed worry that a poor view would hamper the plane’s performance in combat.

“Unlike legacy aircraft such as the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, enhanced cockpit visibility was not designed into the F-35,” Gilmore wrote, evidently because of the need to create a bulky pilot ejection system that works with three different variants of the fighter, meant for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. “There is,” he added, “no simple relief to limitations of the F-35 cockpit visibility.”

The plane’s critical components also seemed to fail at a high rate, according to the report, with two-thirds of the aircraft unavailable more than half the time, due to maintenance. Two of the $120 million aircraft appeared to be lemons, with unavailability rates exceeding 70 percent. Overall, the mean flight time between unscheduled maintenance was 42 minutes. The plane’s principal contractor, Lockheed Martin, got worse and worse at supplying needed parts for the aircraft in Florida, according to the report. “The demands of training for combat will be difficult to meet if dependent upon an aircraft-rich, parts-poor operating environment,” the report warned.

The Air Force and Lockheed have responded publicly that the training effort was appropriate, and that the problems cited by Gilmore were known and are being worked on.

With a clock ticking down to zero hour on the budget sequester, the big contractors building the Pentagon’s over-budget, under-performing, and designed-on-the-fly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter weren’t finding much warmth in either the northern or southern hemisphere.

But they managed to get a check from the Pentagon anyway.

The funds arrived a few days after a rhetorical shot heard halfway around the world, fired by Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the newly-installed chief of the Pentagon’s F-35 advanced warplane program.

He complained to reporters in Australia that the plane’s builders were trying to “squeeze every nickel” out of their deal with the U.S. government rather than worry about the long-term health of the trillion-dollar fighter-bomber program, the priciest weapons project in U.S. history.

The outspoken general, a former test pilot, added: “I want them to start behaving like they want to be around for 40 years. 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.”

Hours later, in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain read a news report of Bodgan’s remarks aloud to Alan Estevez, President Obama’s nominee for the post of principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

As Time’s Mark Thompson pointed out in his blog Friday, McCain doggedly demanded to know why in the face of what he called “massive failures, massive cost overruns,” Lockheed had managed to earn a 7 percent profit since the program began in 2001.

Estevez demurred. “I can’t address the past.”

McCain sounded dumbfounded.

“You can’t address the past?”

“I can’t address, you know, what happened from 2001 till where I am today.”

McCain bore in on him. “You can’t — you can’t address that at all?”

Estevez replied that Bogdan was working closely with the plane’s lead contractors — Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney — “to work through the problems.”

“So since 2001 — and we’re in 2013 — we are beginning to sort through the problem. Is that — is that — is that what I can tell my constituents, Mr. Secretary?”

McCain, who once called the F-35 both a scandal and a tragedy, told Estevez he was frustrated. “This committee has been tracking this program for many years,” he said. “We’ve had promise after promise. We’ve had commitment after commitment. And yet the only thing that has remained constant is that Lockheed has earned a 7 percent profit since the program began…”

Hours before sequestration was scheduled to kick in Friday, the Pentagon nonetheless announced it had awarded Lockheed Martin a contract for $334 million to buy parts for the latest batch of F-35s. The money will be used to build 29 of the jets.

In a statement Thursday responding to Bogdan’s comments Lockheed Martin said “we strive daily to drive costs out of the program.” The statement said Lockheed has worked with Bogdan and the Air Force to cut costs by, among other things, reducing the price per aircraft by 50 percent since the purchase of the first plane and lowering labor costs for the most recent batch of warplanes by 14 percent.

Australia has plans to buy 100 F-35s to serve as the backbone of its air defenses, and Bogdan was there to try to keep the deal on track. Selling the plane to foreign countries is critical to lowering its cost from the current $120 million to $90 million by the end of the year, Pentagon officials have said.

Pierre Sprey, a systems analyfighter aircraft, was skeptical of Bogdan’s promise to lower costs. “His contention that the price will come down is simply false,” he told the Center for Public Integrity. “It’s going to overrun a lot more.”

Sprey, a prominent critic of the F-35 program, was one of the “whiz kids” Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara brought to the Pentagon in 1966. He was a key figure in the development of the F-16, F/A-18 Horney and A-10 “Warthog” ground support aircraft

Sprey predicted that the F-35’s nagging performance problems would persist as the test program becomes more rigorous.” All the toughest testing is still ahead,” he said. “They’ve put off all that tough stuff for obvious reasons because it’s having trouble with all the easy stuff.”

Bogdan’s visit to Australia followed the recent airing of a highly critical documentary by the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation called “Reach for the Sky.”

The documentary detailed the plane’s escalating cost, development delays and myriad problems, including the troublesome software that operates its computerized controls. Because of fears the fuel tank could explode if hit by lightning, the film notes, pilots are not allowed to fly the plane within 25 miles of a thunderstorm.

“That’s true,” Bogdan admits. “But let’s put the context on — on that scenario. I have airplanes in the field that we know should not be flying around lightning. Will this problem occur in the future? No, because we have the known fixes for it and we will fix it. But today, you’re absolutely right, the airplane cannot fly in lightning. Um, in the future will it be able to? Absolutely.”

Orlando Carvalho, general manager of the F-35 program at Lockheed Martin, told the filmmakers that “lightning protection is good example of the type of normal discovery that you’re going to find as you execute a test and development program.”

As he has many times previously, Bogdan told the broadcaster that many of the plane’s troubles are due to the decision to build and test it before it was fully designed.

“A large amount of concurrency — i.e. beginning in production long before your design is stable and long before you’ve found problems in test — creates downstream issues where now you have to go back and retrofit airplanes and make sure that the production line has those fixes in them,” he says. “And that drives complexity and cost.”

The latest snafu occurred on Feb. 21, when a crack slightly longer than a half-inch was found in the turbine blade of a test F-35 based at Edwards Air Force Base in California, forcing a grounding of the entire fleet while other planes were examined. By late yesterday, no other cracks were found and the suspension was lifted.

Kyra Hawn of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office said that the crack occurred in one of the first of the 17 test jets delivered that was used for the “rigorous testing of the (aircraft’s) operational envelope” — flown at high speeds and subjected to steep dives and sharp turns. It was also one of the planes with the highest number of flight hours, she said.

According to a joint statement from the Joint Program Office and Pratt & Whitney, an examination showed the blade cracked due to exposure to “high levels of heat and other operational stressors on this specific engine” and that no engine redesign is required.