Auditors: F-35 will need 'unprecedented' levels of funding to continue

Government auditors on Tuesday warned the F-35 fighter program will require “unprecedented” amounts of funding and experience further delays as engineers grapple with software development.

“Affordability for the U.S. and partners is challenged by a near doubling in average unit prices since program start and higher estimated life-cycle costs,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in a report delivered to the House Armed Services Committee. “Going forward, the [F-35 program] requires unprecedented funding levels in a period of more austere defense budgets.”

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The GAO’s report noted continuing design changes have driven up the price and stretched out the F-35 program’s schedule.

“After more than nine years in development and four in production, the [F-35] program has not fully demonstrated that the aircraft design is stable, manufacturing processes are mature, and the system is reliable,” according to the GAO. “Engineering drawings are still being released to the manufacturing floor and design changes continue at higher rates than desired. More changes are expected as testing accelerates.”

The auditors also honed in on ongoing software development problems, warning new delays are ahead.

“While progress is being made, a substantial amount of software work remains before the program can demonstrate full warfighting capability,” according to GAO.

The report notes the program recently released its second software batch “nearly two years later than the plan set in 2006, largely due to integration problems.”

The next three batches of software, the GAO found, “are now projected to slip more than three years compared to the 2006 plan.”

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), chairman of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee, noted the GAO has made a raft of recommendations about the program that have “largely been right on the mark."

”But those warnings have gone unheeded” by the Pentagon, Bartlett added.

The GAO findings come several weeks after senior Pentagon and F-35 program officials had began sounding more confident about the future of the effort, which has routinely been delayed and breached cost projections.

Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, the Pentagon’s deputy F-35 program chief, said earlier this month at an industry conference that he sees “a positive future.” In recent years, software problems, design flaws and testing issues have held back F-35 development and delayed goals to insert it into the fleet, stated a late 2010 report from the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January placed the program in a two-year probationary period. If problems are not corrected by early January 2013, Gates has said, the next Defense secretary should terminate the variant.

Gates in January added $4 billion to the entire F-35 program’s design-and-development phase. He also altered the tri-service program’s purchasing schedule by making the Marine Corps variant the last that DOD will buy.

Those moves were the latest changes to a program that for decades will constitute the vast majority of the U.S. fighter jet fleet. The Air Force, Navy and Marines are slated to buy around 2,440 models; U.S. allies say they will buy around 750 more.

Bartlett said he is concerned that Pentagon officials have not yet provided lawmakers revised program cost data after those significant changes.

“This year we are told that an additional $4.6 billion and two years have been added to the development schedule, another 124 aircraft have been removed from the planned buy for the next five years,” the subcommittee chairman said, “but we have yet to be provided an estimate of the current total F-35 program procurement cost.” But with no other next-generation fighter in development, Washington has “no choice ... but to continue to pay for F-35 development and procurement cost increases,” Bartlett said.

That assessment echoes Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, who last week told House appropriators there is “no Plan B” for his service.

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