The Pentagon has agreed to resolve major technical deficiencies with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter before moving ahead with full-rate production, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has a large stake in the future of the jet as a contender to manage the Air Force version of the F-35, congressional lawmakers have said.
The watchdog agency had warned the Defense Department should not launch full-scale production of the most expensive weapons program in history, in a recently issued report, until “critical deficiencies” with the stealth fighter jet were resolved, GAO concluded. The plane has nearly 1,000 reported deficiencies, and nearly 200 would not be resolved before full-rate production, the report said.
“The F-35 is going to have a very long life, a lot of upgrades, and a lot of money,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. “Really, this is about the schedule. And even then it’s not really clear how much of a meaningful delay this will be.”
The fighter, which has been in development for 17 years and has battled technical and cost overruns, is developed under the Joint Program Office in Crystal City, Va., with oversight currently of the three versions of the stealth jet.
GAO found the F-35 has not met reliability and maintainability targets and testing would take longer than expected next year. The Defense Department has been expected to make a decision on full-rate production of the F-35 in October 2019, even as the program faced critical deficiencies, the watchdog agency said.
GAO recommended Congress should avoid appropriating money for the latest upgraded version of the plane until the Defense Department “provides a sound business case for the effort.”
The Joint Program Office concurred with the recommendations, GAO said.
The F-35 program will cost an estimated $406 billion in acquisition costs and $1.1 trillion in operations over the next 60 years.
The report raised renewed questions about the F-35’s affordability in the decades ahead with competing expenses for programs like the KC-46 aerial tanker and the Navy’s new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine.
The Pentagon has pushed to find ways to lower costs to avoid cuts to future F-35 purchases.
Identified technical issues included six cases of pilots reporting physiological symptoms of oxygen deprivation, which did not discover a common cause, between May and August 2017 and 21 cases of fuel hoses breaking off during aerial refueling of the Marine Corps and Navy versions of the F-35 between April 2014 and August 2017, GAO said.
The Defense Department has plans to buy 2,456 of the jets, including the F-35A, the Air Force land-based variant; the F-35B, a Marine Corps vertical take-off and landing jet; and the F-35C, a carrier-based version.
The Marine Corps declared the jet operational in 2015 while the Air Force declared the plane ready for combat in late 2016. The Navy could later this year.
Lockheed Martin, the prime manufacturer, has so far delivered more than 260 aircraft to the Defense Department, GAO noted. Many of those early versions have had to be retrofitted. Future plans call for deliveries to reach 77 per year in 2019 — although a House committee has reportedly pushed to buy 16 more — and purchases could reach a peak of 105 by 2024 before starting a gradual decrease in 2030.
The Air Force has said it may have to cut its purchase of aircraft by one-third, or about 560 aircraft, if operational costs are not reduced, Bloomberg has reported.
In a statement, Lockheed Martin’s Greg Ulmer, vice president and general manager of the F-35 program, said the issues identified do not impact flight safety or operations, and he added reliability and availability of the aircraft have improved.
“The issues identified represent areas where we are collaborating with our customers and industry partners to improve the weapon systems’ performance,” he said. “Lockheed Martin 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.”
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