In a recent review of the F-35 program, Government Accountability Office analysts found DOD officials had made "substantial progress" on several of the fighter's top program management priorities.
Program officials were also ahead of schedule for live flight testing on early versions of F-35, conducting more flight tests in 2012 than originally anticipated, according to the GAO.
"The program is working through the continuing effects" of DOD's questionable decision early in the F-35 program to conduct testing and development at the same time, analysts wrote.
But in spite of those accomplishments, the program is still on course "to incur financial risk from its [procurement] plan . . . before completing development flight testing," according to the report.
From now until 2037, DOD is expected to invest just over $12 billion annually just to keep the program on pace to buy over 400 F-35s over the coming years, GAO analysts write. Nearly 300 of those planes will be purchased before flight testing and development on the fighter are complete.
"These actions place the F- 35 program on firmer footing, although aircraft will cost more and deliveries to warfighters will take longer," the report states.
"Going forward, ensuring . . . the ability to acquire aircraft in quantity and to sustain them over the life cycle, is of paramount concern" particularly in light of the automatic budget cuts facing the Pentagon under the administration's sequestration plan.
DOD is set to take nearly $500 billion in across-the-board cuts under sequestration, which went into effect on March 1.
Sequestration proponents claim the F-35 is an example of a bloated Pentagon program that should not be spared the budget axe. Opponents claim the JSF is a critical piece of the DOD arsenal that will play a vital role in U.S. defense strategy in a post-Afghanistan world.
DOD officials only recently granted granted full flight status back to the F-35 fleet after an engine malfunction aboard one of JSF test aircraft forced the Defense Department to ground the entire fleet.
Pentagon officials ordered the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps versions of the plane grounded earlier this month, after the turbine cracks were uncovered aboard an Air Force version of the jet stationed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Subsequent engine tests by prime contractor Pratt & Whitney at the company's facility in Middletown, Conn., found the crack was due to "prolonged exposure to high levels of heat and other operational stressors," according to JSF program spokeswoman Kyra Hawn.
With a total cost estimate at more than $400 billion, the F-35 is the most expensive weapon development program in the history of the Pentagon.
In 2011, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially took the Marine Corps plane off probation. Recent reports, however, claim the jet fleet, considered the most expensive acquisition program in Pentagon history, is currently $150 billion over budget, based on initial cost estimates.