The GAO has published its latest report on the F-35 JSF. It’s grim reading. The only thing keeping this program going is that it’s the definition of too-big-to-fail. Well, let’s plunge in and see what’s happening.
Let’s start with cost. There are lots of cost figures floating around out there but these should be as official as it’s possible to get. As reported, the
production goal is for 2443 aircraft of a mix of the three versions. The cost report does not break out the individual version costs. The total procurement cost for the 2443 aircraft is $335.7B in 2012 dollars for a unit cost of $137M per aircraft. Developmental costs are reported separately and total $55.2B. That is one expensive plane! U.S.
Hmm… I wonder, though, how it would compare to, say, a brand new Super Hornet built today. Co-incidentally, the report provides that information. Because of the delayed fielding of an operational JSF and the resulting shortage of Navy aircraft, the Navy is planning to build 41 new F/A-18E/F aircraft for a total of $3.1B. That’s a unit cost of $76M. Quite a drop from the JSF!
|JSF - No End In Sight|
Moving on, let’s look at the scheduling overruns. As a reminder, in 2001 the JSF was predicted to achieve Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2010 after nine years of development. Subsequently, the IOC slipped to 2012 then 2013 then 2015 and now the military has rescinded that estimate and declined to provide a new projected IOC date citing the still too immature level of development. I think it’s safe to say that 2017 would be an optimistic guess and 2018 or beyond would be more likely. That’s pushing two decades to achieve IOC!!!!
Here’s an interesting tidbit demonstrating the problem with concurrency (the practice of building production aircraft before design and testing are finalized).
“Over time, testing has discovered bulkhead and rib cracks. The program is testing some redesigned structures and planning other modifications. Officials plan to retrofit test and production aircraft already built and make changes to the production line for subsequent aircraft.”
It’s not encouraging to find structural failures in brand new aircraft but, to be fair, that’s the point of testing. I have no doubt that fixes can be instituted but this means that the production aircraft that have already been built have to be torn apart and rebuilt to incorporate the fixes. In essence, we’re paying twice for the same aircraft. I don’t understand the rush to make production aircraft that are not operational, will just sit around, and will have to be rebuilt at additional cost. This is stupidity at an unprecedented level.
GAO comments on the effect of concurrency.
“In addition to contract cost overruns, the program is incurring substantial costs to retrofit (rework) produced aircraft needed to fix deficiencies discovered in testing. These costs are largely attributable to the substantial concurrency, or overlap, between testing and manufacturing activities.”
The key to success of the JSF lies in its computer software. Clearly, the airframe performance offers nothing noteworthy. The stealth is only mediocre. It’s the software that will tie the sensors together and provide the 360 degree sensing, the advanced self-diagnostics, the integrated helmet, and other capabilities that will make or break the JSF. Unfortunately, the software is even further behind and in more trouble than the hardware, if you can believe that. GAO recommends,
“… evaluating the possible deferral of some capabilities, either to later blocks or moving them outside the current F-35 program to follow on development efforts. “
As with the LCS, faced with failure to meet specifications the solution is to waive the requirements? It appears so. GAO is saying that continuing to pursue the promised capabilities will negatively impact cost and timelines to the point that the lesser of evils option is to defer the capabilities until some nebulous point in the future.
Here’s GAO’s summary of the status of software development.
“Software capabilities are developed, tested and delivered in three major blocks and two increments—initial and final—within each block. The status of the three blocks is described below:
- Block 1.0, providing initial training capability, was largely completed in 2012, although some final development and testing will continue. Also, the capability delivered did not fully meet expected requirements relating to the helmet, ALIS, and instrument landing capabilities.
- Block 2.0, providing initial warfighting capabilities and limited weapons, fell behind due to integration challenges and the reallocation of resources to fix block 1.0 defects. The initial increment, block 2A, delivered late and was incomplete. Full release of the final increment, block 2B, has been delayed until November 2013 and won’t be complete until late 2015. The Marine Corps is requiring an operational flight clearance from the Naval Air Systems Command before it can declare an initial operational capability (IOC) for its F-35B force. IOC is the target date each service establishes for fielding an initial combat capable force.
- Block 3.0 providing full warfighting capability, to include sensor fusion and additional weapons, is the capability required by the Navy and Air Force for declaring their respective IOC dates. Thus far, the program has made little progress on block 3.0 software. The program intends initial block 3.0 to enter flight test in 2013, which will be conducted concurrently with the final 15 months of block 2B flight tests. Delivery of final block 3.0 capability is intended to begin nearly 3 years of developmental flight tests in 2014. This is rated as one of the program’s highest risks because of its complexity.
In particular, the development and testing of software-intensive mission systems are lagging, with the most challenging work ahead. About 12 percent of mission systems capabilities are validated at this time, up from 4 percent about 1 year ago. “
That paints a pretty vivid picture of the state of the software development. The JSF is nowhere near operational status despite over a decade of development.
Dept. of Defense really should pull the plug on this program. Unfortunately, the reality is that this program has become too big to fail in the mind of DoD. If JSF were cancelled we’d be looking at another decade or two to get a replacement fielded. The worst part of this is that even when the JSF becomes operational, it will only be slightly better than the Hornets it replaces, if even that. Despite the incredible amount of pain it would cause and the disruption to naval aviation procurement plans, the best option is to cancel the program and continue buying Super Hornets until a replacement can be procured.
(1) Government Accountability Office, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Mar 2013, GAO-13-309