In a report tabled earlier this week by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), a number of issues were flagged with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Long beset by financial woes, the piece gave short shrift to the trillion-dollar jet program.
In the piece, aptly titled 'Actions Needed to Address Manufacturing and Modernization Risks', the taxpayer watchdog pulled no punches, citing a number of key issues and concerns. In line with guidance issued by Congress, the GAO conducts a rolling review of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program on an annual basis.
"The F-35 program is at risk of missing its test schedule and not meeting manufacturing leading practices," said the GAO. "In 2019, the F-35 program conducted much of its planned operational testing but extended the schedule by nine months, which delays the program's full-rate production decision to between September 2020 and March 2021. Over that time, the program will continue to deliver aircraft."
In certain areas, such as aircraft production rate and price negotiation, the report acknowledged that significant progress had been made year-on-year. But all in all, the report struck a critical note, censuring the program for budget blowouts and continued extensions on delivery deadlines.
In early 2018, the JSF program unveiled a new strategy for rolling out the software and hardwares changes commonly known as the "Block 4" updates. The concept went by the typically military moniker of Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (CCDD); in effect, the idea was that new additions to the aircraft would be rolled out in a piecemeal fashion, as and when they became available. This meant that instead of waiting for integrated updates to the craft, individual Block 4 changes (like avionics or radar fine-tuning, or integration of new weapons) could be carried out immediately.
Both Lockheed Martin and the JSF program themselves were adamant that this would improve delivery time frames and improve software integration. While the GAO seems to agree with the theory, it cited a number of points that seem to show no radical differences have been made to the rate at which the JSF program is being carried out.
“According to the plan outlined in its May 2019 report to Congress, the F-35 program was going to deliver eight Block 4 capabilities in 2019. However, the program delivered only one — a software capability called the Auto Ground-Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS),” says GAO. “This capability enables the aircraft to perform an automatic recovery when it predicts that the aircraft will strike the ground. This was ahead of schedule as the program had originally planned to deliver this capability after 2019.”
On this point, it's worth adding that the Auto GCAS isn't by any means unique to the F-35; you can find it fully functional in the F-16.
Interestingly, the GAO also slammed figures provided by the US Department of Defense (DoD) on the Block 4 updates as inaccurate. Despite the fact that completion is slated for well after 2024, the DoD chose to exclude spending prior to 2018 and after 2024.
“Ultimately, without a complete understanding of Block 4 costs, the program could face additional cost growth, which will be hard to track without a complete cost baseline,” the agency said. “The lack of a complete cost baseline hinders insight and oversight into the program’s costs, plans, and progress to date and going forward.”
Though the agency couldn't (and shouldn't) comment on the political rationale behind Washington's decision to kick Ankara out of the F-35 club, eyebrows were raised over how Turkish supply-chain elements were being replaced. After Turkey insisted on the acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defence systems, most outlets reported that Turkey will lose out on jobs created by the jet network by March 2020. Indeed, GAO seems to take this stance; but buried away in a page-30 nook of the report is a somewhat sinister reference to ongoing works.
It seems that while replacements have been found for just over 1,000 Turkey-sourced parts, this actually means nothing more than orders will be cancelled by March. Continuing to rely on parts sourced from a lukewarm ally (at best) as tensions continue to fracture is a clear example of supply-chain vulnerability. Not to mention the fact that many of these parts are sole-sourced from Turkey. Neither Congress nor the DoD have insisted on a time frame for a switch, but the GAO reports a tentative end date of 2023 for most products.
And while most of the parts sourced from the country may (or may not) have been replaced, the GAO said that "the program is assessing the effect of 15 key [Turkish-produced] parts not currently being produced at the needed production rate".
This isn't the first time that the F-35 has been the centre of a diplomatic spat, and it certainly won't be the last. Earlier this month, British newspaper The Telegraph reported that a number of Republican senators were seeking to block the stationing of 48 F-35 Lightning II JSF aircraft in the UK, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned Chinese firm Huawei to "build non-core parts of the UK’s 5G networks".
Perhaps a little unsurprisingly, one of the areas in which the agency was most critical was in terms of deadlines and budgetary expectations. According to the GAO, the F-35's operational testing has now been pushed back by nine months, delaying the full-rate production phase to as late as March 2021. Of 10,000 key manufacturing processes contracted out under the supply chain, only 3,000 met GAO's predefined standards for product quality. Issues laid out in the paper will likely also affect the hundreds of aircraft that have already been delivered, meaning updates will have to be made in the field.