GAO: F-35 Not Meeting Reliability, Maintainability Goals

The F-35’s test schedule and quality are at risk, and there could be delays stemming from finding alternative sources for parts previously made in Turkey, the Government Accountability Office said in its annual congressionally mandated report on the fighter.

The F-35’s full-rate production decision has been postponed nine months, to as late as March 2021, and less than a third of 10,000 “key manufacturing processes,” meant to meet design standards that ensure a high-quality product, are doing so, according to the report, released May 12. The 500 jets built so far aren’t meeting reliability and maintainability goals, the GAO said, and unless the program evaluates the risks of these situations, customers may not get the “quality [of] aircraft they purchased.”

The GAO also said schedule and production could be imperiled by not rapidly finding a replacement source for all parts previously made by Turkey. The U.S. and its F-35 partners kicked Turkey out of the program more than a year ago for refusing to back out of a planned buy of Russian air defense equipment. While new sources have been found for 1,005 Turkish-made F-35 parts, “15 key parts are not currently being produced at the needed production rate,” the GAO said, threatening to slow down deliveries. “Deliveries continue,” however, despite the postponed full-rate production decision and delay in finding new parts vendors, according to the report.

Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief Ellen Lord gave the program an extension on full-rate production to give it time to be integrated in the Joint Simulation Environment, which evaluates weapon systems in Pentagon digital wargames.

Finally, the report noted that the cost of the F-35 Block 4 upgrade jumped $1.5 billion in 2019, to $12.1 billion, but the new project didn’t “fully adhere to leading practices,” such as including a life cycle cost for the project. Block 4 development will continue through 2026, but the GAO noted that program reports to Congress are to end in 2023, and the audit agency said Congress “will lack important oversight information” as a result. It recommended Congress “consider” updating the oversight law by extending reporting through the full program.

The GAO made five recommendations, and the Pentagon concurred with three of them. On the two it disagreed with, the GAO said the DOD’s alternative approach would likely “meet the intent of our recommendations.”

The Joint Program Office said it fully cooperated with the report and permitted the GAO “unfettered access” to its information. “There were no surprises in the report and the items mentioned are well known to the JPO,” as well as international partners and the industry team, F-35 Program Executive Officer Lt. Gen. Eric Fick said through a spokeswoman.   

The GAO recommended:

  • The Joint Program Office evaluate production process risks regarding reliability and maintainability that match the format called for in legislation, ahead of “Milestone C,” or the full-rate production decision. The Pentagon disagreed, saying it has other ways to keep Congress informed on these matters, and will also present a risk mitigation plan, which GAO determined would answer its concerns.
  • The Pentagon establish a Block 4 “program baseline that includes all Block 4 costs,” so Congress can compare today’s and previous costs to those in future years. The Pentagon agreed, saying Block 4 estimates are available to Congress through the Future Years Defense Plan.
  • The JPO complete a “product-oriented work breakdown structure for the next Block 4 cost estimate” to ensure it complies with “leading practices.” The JPO said it was already planning to do this in future years, but it was too late to include such an assessment for the next Block 4 cost estimate.
  • Lord’s office direct the JPO to conduct “risk and uncertainty analyses” on the next Block 4 update. The Pentagon agreed, saying it does this through the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation process.
  • Lord should direct the JPO to include the results of its future technology readiness assessments in its next Block 4 cost estimates to ensure it complies with “leading practices.” The Pentagon agreed, saying it pegs Technology Readiness Levels of Block 4 elements and uses those to develop cost estimates.