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GAO Report Card on the F-35 JSF

March 11, 2008 (by Eric L. Palmer) - It is that time of year again, and the annual Government Accounting Office status report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been released.

The 2008 GAO report on the F-35 has been released

And well, it could always be worse; it could be the report on the U.S. Army Future Combat System (FCS) which, after reading that, makes the JSF program look pretty darn good.

Yes there are problems, and yes the "every complex defense program has problems" saying can be applied here. For example we all know costs are rising on the program, however that is a cause of multiple effect and not just program management. The JSF program has little control over the whims of the U.S. government funding which is more of a reactionary strategy as opposed to long range planning.

We already know that there are critics of reducing the amount of test airframes for the System Demonstration and Development (SDD) phase now in progress. This was an effort to reduce operating costs on work done and work yet to do on SDD. Here GAO says that this kind of cost control strategy doesn't do anything to help identify the root cause of cost growth.

Since last year’s GAO report, the JSF program office estimates that total acquisition costs increased by more than $23 billion, primarily because of higher estimated procurement costs. Here too a buck doesn't buy what it used to thanks to a falling dollar. Expect this to get worse no matter how efficient the program becomes.

Quoting the report: "Cost and schedule pressures are mounting. Two-thirds of budgeted funding for JSF development has been spent, but only about one-half of the work has been completed. The contractor is on its third, soon to be fourth, manufacturing schedule, but test aircraft in manufacturing are still behind, the continuing impacts of late designs, delayed delivery of parts, and manufacturing inefficiencies."

The report also goes on to say that: "Three independent defense offices separately concluded that program cost estimates are understated by as much as $38 billion and that the development schedule is likely to slip from 12 to 27 months."

Revelations in the report? If there is a dead cat thrown into the room for everyone to look at in surprise it is the claim by the GAO that: "Further, expected cost per flight hour now exceeds that of the F-16 legacy fighter, one of the aircraft it is intended to replace." If true, this may effect customer perception of one of the big sales pitches of the F-35 by Lockheed Martin; that the jet is cheaper to operate than a legacy F-16.

No matter what the cost, the report recommends that the two-engine vendor thing is the way to go. Good advice considering the latest engine problems.

GAO doesn't have any confidence in the ability of the program to estimate costs.

There is more, but the report ends with the usual cautionary tone saying we should be good for goodness sake. Which I guess given what is at stake is great advice. Expect all parties concerned to agree and disagree with the report which is nothing new.

What may be new is how a new U.S. presidency in the coming year will react to such expensive defense programs.

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