The stealth fighter jet that is meant to become the backbone of America's air power is going to cost the U.S. government billions more than expected and has already suffered significant delays in its troubled development, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.
When the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program went into development in 2001, it was already one of the most expensive defense acquisition projects in history at $223 billion. But in just over a decade, the price has ballooned to just under $400 billion -- and jumped nearly $15 billion just between 2010 and 2011, according to the GAO report published Tuesday. Also, the jets won't be in full production mode until 2018, rather than 2012 as originally planned, the report says.
The report notes the planes' mixed record on meeting its testing goals last year and cites a few specific problems, including difficulties managing the electronic system's unprecedented 24 million lines of computer code and delays in the development of critical mission systems that are so behind schedule as to be "risky."
The GAO's report was presented at the same Congressional subcommittee where F-35 program executive officer Vice Adm. David J. Venlet defended the program, saying the F-35 is on a more realistic schedule and budget now and the program has been transparent about problems that arise during the testing of "all fighter aircraft development."
"There is data and demonstrated performance in hand that gives confidence the F-35 basic design is sound and has clear potential to deliver the capability we expect," Venlet said in prepared remarks. "There is a lot of test[ing] ahead. Integrating the systems and sensors and expanding the envelope will bring discovery that sound systems engineering will solve."
Pentagon's Weapons Man: F-35 Buy Was 'Acquisition Malpractice'
The GAO's report comes over a month after the man now in charge of buying weapons systems for the U.S. military said that the whole plan to buy the plane amounted to "acquisition malpractice."
"I can spend quite a few minutes on the F-35, but I don't want to," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said at a conference in early February. "Putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done, OK? But we did it, OK?"
The problem, according to Kendall and the new GAO report, was the Air Force's strategy of concurrency -- meaning that rather than testing a few models and then mass producing the planes, the jets would go into full production early and test as they go. Any faults in the design discovered during testing, therefore, would mean that all the planes -- those in production and those already completed -- would have to be retrofitted with the fixes.
Kendall said in February that the early production decision was due to "optimistic predictions" based on design tools, simulations and modeling. But he said the design tools weren't perfect, the models weren't precise enough and now the military has found problems in all three variants of the F-35.
"Now we're paying the price for being wrong about that," he said. Kendall was not with the Defense Department's acquisitions office when the F-35 deal was inked with Lockheed Martin in 2001.
Panetta: F-35 'Absolutely Critical'
Over the past few years the Defense Department has restructured the program so that fewer planes are produced earlier in testing -- in hopes of containing the cost of expensive retrofits -- but the GAO report says the Pentagon is "still investing billions of dollars on hundreds of aircraft while flight testing has years to go."
Regardless of the GAO's findings, while agonizing over the JSF program's many issues, several defense officials have also said that the military is stuck with the next generation fighters, along with the F-35's tactical compliment the F-22 Raptor.
"It is the future of tactical air for the Department of Defense for all three services it supports," Kendall said of the F-35 in February.
Just a month before that, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the program was "absolutely critical" to America's future military force.