GAO Tells Congress: Pentagon Still Needs a Portfolio Plan for Tactical Aviation

With a flood of new aircraft programs taking shape, the Pentagon still doesn’t have a portfolio plan that rationalizes its all-service tactical aviation activities, the Government Accountability Office told the House Armed Services Committee this week.

Creating such a plan would help the Defense Department and Congress alike size up the true priorities in TacAir and put funds against the most pressing needs, the GAO reported. It also said the joint-service F-35 continues to lag behind planned schedules, and that its engine issues are being addressed without a business case analysis in place.  

In March 29 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee panel on tactical aviation, GAO’s Jon Ludwigson, director of contracting and national security acquisition, said the DOD is in the midst of updating almost all of its TacAir programs, roughly half of which “were first produced before 2000 and are more than 25 years old.”

While the Pentagon is pushing this raft of new airplanes, it still “lacks key portfolio-level analysis to better inform its decisions,” despite no fewer than eight TacAir reviews conducted by the DOD between 2020 and 2022. Ludwigson said the GAO thinks a rationalized portfolio could save money by reducing unnecessary duplication of effort.

The Pentagon has not “conducted an integrated analysis that provides insights into the interdependencies and risks across all tactical air platforms and all services,” Ludwigson said, referring to an audit GAO did in December 2022.

“We believe that conducting an integrated portfolio review would benefit DOD and the Congress, as they balance these decisions,” he said. In fiscal 2023, TacAir modernization programs totaled more than $20 billion across the services, he noted, and that bill balloons to over $100 billion across the future years defense plan.

Responding to the GAO in December, the Pentagon said it expects to do a portfolio-wide analysis of its TacAir plans in the next year or two.

The Air Force and Navy both are pursuing Next-Generation Air Dominance fighters—which despite the identical names are different programs with different requirements and timelines. They are likewise separately pursuing uncrewed combat aircraft programs and new examples of fourth generation fighters, while jointly building different variants of the F-35 as their main crewed tactical aviation asset.

Offering insights from a not-yet-published report on the F-35, Ludwigson said “challenges continue to delay completion of the baseline development” and put F-35 modernization at risk.

“The program has struggled to complete and validate the simulator needed for final testing. In addition, aircraft and engines have been delivered late and have not met reliability/maintainability metrics set for them,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Block 4 upgrade of the F-35 needed to face modern threats” has “continued to lag schedule estimates, exceed cost estimates” and grown in scope, Ludwigson noted.

The original engine specifications of the F-35 didn’t take into account “the eventual full cooling and power needs of the aircraft, which contributed to accelerated wear and tear on the existing engine. Further, the existing cooling system and engine faces limits in supporting new planned capabilities,” Ludwigson said, a reference to additional cooling needed for the new hotter-running electronics that will be incorporated in the Block 4 version of the fighter.  

The Pentagon is moving toward an Engine Core Upgrade of the F135 powerplant, particularly to the F135’s thermal management system, but “based on our preliminary analysis, these engine-related efforts lack key elements of a full business case to support decisions and are proceeding without requirements,” Ludwigson said, setting the stage for the program to come up short if there are no firm targets against wish to measure it.

At the very least, the F-35’s “engine is underperforming, resulting in … increased wear and tear” on the powerplant, Ludwigson asserted.

“We’re … concerned that the program may seek to develop and acquire this complex, costly and important upgrade” of the F135 “within the F-35 program, without its own baseline cost and schedule,” he said.

The Block 4 upgrade alone is expected to cost $16.5 billion, Ludwigson said, and GAO’s observations of the effort “point to increases in scope, costs, and delays,” he said.

Meanwhile, until DOD verifies that the “simulator can conduct complex test scenarios that accurately replicate real-world conditions, the F-35 will be unable to complete initial operational testing,” Ludwigson said.