The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Never Ending Problems for the F-35

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


For the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), trouble has again reared its ugly head. Just two years after the F-35B was placed on “probation” by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Department of Defense (DOD) has grounded all three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) as a “precautionary measure.”   This after an inspection turned up a cracked turbine blade on the F-35A variant, designed for the Air Force.  As of yet, the JSF program office does not know if it is a fleet-wide issue.  This is the second grounding of the F-35 in two months; the F-35B variant, designed for the Marine Corps, was recently grounded because of a fuel line issue. This is not ideal timing for the DOD, which has been struggling to defend its budget ahead of the automatic sequestration cuts to be imposed on March 1 barring further action by Congress. The JSF’s problems have been legion: [The F-35] “has been plagued by a costly redesign, bulkhead cracks, too much weight, and delays to essential software that have helped put it seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial cost estimate.  At almost $400 billion, it’s the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history.” In an era of extreme cost-overruns in the DOD, the JSF takes the cake.  The 2,443 aircraft will cost $395.7 billion, an increase from the previous estimate of $233 billion in 2001 (all figures in current dollars).  According to a March 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the JSF accounted for $39 billion, or 52 percent of the cost growth in the Major Defense Acquisitions Portfolio, a collection of the most expensive DOD procurement programs. The reasons for the cost overruns and delays seems clear to the GAO’s Michael Sullivan, who asserted, “They began the program before they understood the requirements.  They failed to do a lot of systems engineering early.  They didn’t understand their technologies.” DOD Undersecretary for Acquisition Frank Kendall went even further in February 2012 when he claimed, “Putting the F-35 into production years before the first flight test was acquisition malpractice.” Unfortunately, the U.S.’ share of the program may increase in the future.  Many partners have scaled back the amount of F-35 they intend to order.  A few others, including Canada, are considering doing so in the future.  This would serve to further drive up the price of each plane, which has doubled to $137 million since 2001. Opponents of the JSF have long been forced to contend with the program’s incredible political clout.  According to Bloomberg News’ analysis of the program: “The F-35 funnels business to a global network of contractors that includes Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) and Kongsberg Gruppen ASA of Norway.  It counts 1,300 suppliers in 45 states supporting 133,000 jobs -- and more in nine other countries, according to Lockheed.  The F-35 is an example of how large weapons programs can plow ahead amid questions about their strategic necessity and their failure to arrive on time and on budget.” With this much visibility (and jobs created), the program has a lot of political backers.  As a result, the JSF continues to receive near unlimited funding despite its many technical difficulties and routine cost overruns, all with very little opposition in Congress. Unfortunately, the latest episode with the JSF will more than likely renew efforts for the F136 alternative engine, long opposed by Citizens Against Government Waste.  However, throwing more money at the problem is hardly the answer.  In addition, the engine is the least of the JSF’s troubles. The F-35 serves as the most vibrant example of existing problems in DOD acquisitions, and the most pressing case for reform.  While the DOD strives to enact the cuts necessitated by sequestration, or some future grand bargain between members of Congress and the White House, it must also address its tumultuous procurement history.  For its part, Congress must undertake a more active oversight role.

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