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F35 program may be unaffordable, auditor says

The most costly military program in history might wind up busting the Pentagon budget

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The troubled F-35 fighter jet, which is supposed to serve as the backbone of the U.S. military’s future air combat forces, may cost much more than the nation can afford, a federal auditor told a Senate panel Wednesday.

Michael J. Sullivan, acquisitions director of the Government Accountability Office, told the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee that current projections call for $316 billion in F-35 development and purchases from now through 2037, an average of $12.6 billion a year. Operations and maintenance costs alone will exceed $1 trillion over the fleet’s 35-year lifespan.

“Congress may want to consider whether the funding assumptions are reasonable in our current fiscal environment,” Sullivan said, responding to questions from Subcommittee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Sullivan told the panel maintaining this sustained level of funding “will be difficult in a period of declining or flat defense budgets and competition with other ‘big ticket items’ such as the KC-45 tanker and a new bomber program.”

Meanwhile, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, warned that the fighter’s costs are climbing — not shrinking as they typically do once production begins — as officials scramble to fix problems cropping up during flight tests of planes already delivered by the manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp. The “most challenging portions” of the testing have not yet begun, he said.

“We haven’t actually tested any combat capability,” Gilmore told senators, adding that there may not be enough time or money for full testing of these crucial capabilities in 2018, as scheduled.

Gilmore warned that F-35 may suffer further delays due to the budget sequester. “Reduced funding for test resources and infrastructure while the F-35 is under development ... will likely add to the pressure to either extend [the design and development phase] or accept reductions in capability,” he said.

He blamed the high cost of making design and production changes on “concurrency,” the practice of buying planes even as they are undergoing testing. “Production in this program started before there was any flight testing at all, which was unprecedented in the history of aircraft development programs,” Gilmore said. “That’s about as concurrent as you can get — that’s pretty much 100 percent concurrency. Obviously that’s a bad thing.

“We need to have more rigorous developmental testing. We need to let that testing proceed before we make production decisions,” he added.

Durbin summoned senior military, defense and GAO officials to explain the problems encountered by the high-tech, stealth fighter, the Pentagon’s single most expensive weapons program at a total estimated cost of $391 billion for 2,443 planes. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, who also testified, called the F-35 “the only viable option” to replace the service’s aging F-16s.

"The Joint Strike Fighter program has had more than its share of problems over the last decade," Durbin said. "Frankly, its history reads like a textbook on how not to run a major acquisition effort."

The GAO’s Sullivan said the F-35 program officials expect to spend about $900 million to retrofit aircraft bought under the first four procurement contracts, with $827 million more to fix planes still to be purchased under the next six annual contracts.

The biggest headaches, he said, are the lagging effort to write the complex software, the $34 billion purchase of the first 150 aircraft with less than half of the flight testing completed, and a potentially false assumption that there will be enough money in future budgets to cover annual development, production and operating costs.

“If these risks are not controlled and the cost of the F-35 grows much more, the program is in danger of falling into a much too-familiar cycle of quantity reductions in order to meet a budget,” said Sullivan, adding that cutting the size of the fleet will only drive up the cost of each plane.

Both Sullivan and Gilmore credited the Pentagon for overhauling the program’s development and production plans three years ago. The latest funding projections, Sullivan said, reflect the increased costs, longer schedule times and deferred purchases of 410 of the aircraft. 

They said the military was making steady progress in testing, but Gilmore said the software issues have delayed so-called high angle-of-attack testing, and weapons delivery systems and helmet-mounted displays are also behind schedule.

Gilmore also revealed details of two “stop orders” that halted testing and grounded planes earlier this year. The first, due to a hydraulic fuel line failure in a British vertical takeoff version of the F-35, grounded the F-35B fleet from Jan. 16 through Feb. 11. A crack in an engine turbine blade grounded the entire F-35 fleet for a week in February. A less serious hinge problem grounded the test fleet in March for inspections and maintenance.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, gave an upbeat assessment of the program while agreeing with Sen. Durbin that production of the aircraft began far too soon in the process. “The F-35 program continues to make progress. I believe we have a realistic plan in place,” said Kendall, who once publicly called the fighter program “acquisition malpractice.”

But Kendall added, “We still have a long way to go in the flight test program.”

Durbin asked “if any alternative is being considered for a less costly fighter.” He was told the country could not afford to start from scratch.

“I don’t believe we have any alternative but to make the program work,” Gilmore said.