F-35 Defects Must Be Fixed Before Full-Production, GAO Says

(Bloomberg) -- The Defense Department office that oversees the F-35 program was criticized by a government watchdog for its plans to delay fixing critical deficiencies on the fighter until after a decision to start full-rate production is made -- a move that won’t come before October 2019.

The F-35 -- the world’s most expensive weapons program -- had 966 “open deficiencies” as of January, the Government Accountability Office said in an annual report released Tuesday. Of those, at least 180 “will not be resolved before full-rate production” under the Pentagon office’s current plans, according to the report.

F-35 Defects Must Be Fixed Before Full-Production, GAO Says

The production decision would commit the U.S. to building 77 or more of the Lockheed Martin Corp. aircraft per year over the next 12 years, up from 70 this year. Output would peak at 105 aircraft in 2023 at an annual cost of $13.4 billion and stay at that rate for six years. That makes it imperative for the Pentagon to fix the deficiencies before a decision about production -- the most profitable phase for Lockheed -- is made, the report said.

The troubled $406.5 billion F-35 is a next-generation fighter scheduled to end its 17-year-old development phase this year. Starting in September, the program is supposed to proceed to intense combat testing that’s likely to take a year, an exercise that is already at least 12 months late. Combat testing is necessary before the plane can be approved for full-rate production.

‘Rush’ to Finish Line

Over the past year, the Pentagon “has made progress in completing the F-35 development program,” GAO said. “However, in its rush to cross the finish line, the program has made some decisions that are likely to affect aircraft performance and reliability and maintainability for years to come.”

The GAO report broke down the shortfalls into two categories: Category 1 deficiencies are defined as “those that could jeopardize safety, security, or another critical requirement,” while Category 2 deficiencies “are those that could impede or constrain successful mission accomplishment.” The report cited 111 Category 1 and 855 Category 2 deficiencies.

“If reliability targets are not met, the military services and the taxpayer will have to settle for aircraft that are less reliable, more costly, and take longer to maintain,” according to the GAO report. “Given that the program’s long-term affordability is already in question, ensuring the aircraft is reliable by each variant’s planned maturity is paramount.”

Helmet Display Issue

An example of a Category 1 “must fix” deficiency involves the pilots’ helmet display system, which shows information needed to fly the aircraft, the Pentagon’s test office said via email.

Although deemed safe for day and night operations, there are restrictions placed on using the system for landing aboard a ship at night because of a dim green backlight on the helmet’s display that “can decrease the pilot’s ability to detect visual cues,” according to the test office. The program is developing a new light-emitting diode display and software improvements to address the issue, the test office said.

F-35 program office spokesman Joe DellaVedova said via email that, as with past GAO assessments, this one was completed with the office’s “full cooperation and unfettered access to information. There were no surprises in the report and the items mentioned are well known,” he said.

“The program already has actions in work for the GAO’s recommendations to address deficiencies and identify steps to meet reliability and maintainability requirements,” he said. Officials expect the F-35 Program “to resolve all critical deficiencies prior to entering” combat testing “with either a fix,” a service-approved work around “or a formal acceptance of the deficiency,” he added

Following the test, Pentagon officials will review the F-35 program for a full-rate production decision and that will include an assessment of outstanding deficiencies and deferred improvement plans, DellaVedova said.

Must Fix Deficiencies

The Pentagon’s office of combat testing, in an separate email to Bloomberg News, said that as of February, the number of open deficiencies had climbed to 995 with only 47 of 276 “must fix deficiencies” actually underway.

“This large amount of unresolved deficiencies will likely have a cumulative effect on F-35 mission capability, the extent of which will be determined during” the combat testing, the office said. It’s only after combat testing is complete that the Pentagon will have “relevant and accurate data to inform Congress” of the aircraft’s actual capability.

Lockheed spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson said via email that the Bethesda, Maryland-based company “is working closely with the Joint Program Office to prioritize and correct all of these areas to ensure we continue delivering the most advanced aircraft in the world.”

Aside from outlining its concerns with the outstanding number of deficiencies, the GAO highlighted progress in manufacturing both the aircraft and its engine by Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney.

Declining Costs

The companies “continue to report improvements to manufacturing processes” since 2012, according to the report. Lockheed “has improved manufacturing efficiency, reflecting a positive trend” since the program’s most extensive restructuring in 2010, it said.

The average labor hours needed to manufacture an Air Force F-35A dropped to 41,541 last year from 108,355 in 2012, said company data cited by GAO. “These improvements in airframe manufacturing efficiency indicate that manufacturing processes are stabilizing and coming under control, and production capability is improving,” said GAO.

Similarly, “over the past year, Pratt & Whitney has shown similar improvements in manufacturing efficiency,” according to the report.

“According to Pratt & Whitney, its annual production rate increased by 12 percent, with 73 engines delivered from January to mid-December 2017” while costs for the Air Force and Navy model engines have been declining as well, the report said.

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