GAO to DOD: “F-35 Unreliable, Unaffordable”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released two reports taking aim at the oft-troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.  The aircraft, intended to fulfill multiple fighting roles across all three branches of the Armed Services, has already seen its fair share of woes such as:

Still, despite these bumps in the road, the Department of Defense (DOD) plans to ramp up production and increase procurement even as concurrent development and testing continues. Unsurprisingly, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – a government watchdog agency – has a skeptical view of this foolhardy approach.

The first GAO report, published April 14, highlighted how increased production, before major technical issues are solved, could compound risks and cost:

Increasing production while concurrently developing and testing creates risk and could result in additional cost growth and schedule delays.

Manufacturing progress has continued despite mixed supplier performance. The aircraft contractor delivered 36 aircraft as planned in 2014; however, none of these were delivered with warfighting capabilities. However, the labor hours needed to manufacture an aircraft and the number of major design changes have continued to decline over time. Supplier performance has been mixed, and late deliveries could pose risk to the program's plans to increase production. The contractors are taking steps to address these issues. 

Cost and affordability challenges for the F-35 persist.

The second GAO report, released the same day, echoed the first and focused on the aircraft’s massive fiscal challenges – largely due to the procurement plan as well as the many reliability and design problems. The report concluded that the DOD has not adequately accounted for “future technical and funding uncertainty” and that the program’s procurement plan might not be affordable.

While the necessity and role of the F-35 is certainly debatable, what is clear that is that many of these ongoing problems stem from larger systemic issues with DOD acquisition and the use of concurrency to develop and produce the F-35. This means that taxpayers foot the bill even as systems are being tested and the final end product is far from established, increasing risk as the GAO illustrated. Appropriators have said that they’ve learned from the F-35 debacle – taxpayers are repeatedly told that while the F-35 may not be going anywhere, these mistakes won’t be repeated.

However, a subsequent report issued by the GAO demonstrates that the Amphibious Combat Vehicle also suffers from concurrency and deviation from best practices like separating “technology development from product development and fully develop[ing] technologies before introducing them to the design of a system.”

It’s true that both the DOD and taxpayers have a lot invested in the F-35, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue pursuing such a seriously flawed system. At least until the fighter is in working condition and its strategic role is delineated, procurement should be delayed – not increased – to avoid further waste and unnecessary risk.