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GAO calls rush to field F-35 strike-fighter not 'prudent'

F-35 Lighting project, considered the linchpin of the military's plan to modernize its tactical air forces, is found to be over budget and behind schedule.

The Department of Defense's $1 trillion-plus plan to build and deliver multiple versions of the Joint Strike Force (JSF) aircraft to multiple customers is behind schedule, over budget, and upside down, according to a report from the Government Accounting Office (PDF).

Upside down because the military is accelerating procurement of operational aircraft before it has even taken delivery of test units, according to the non-partisan GAO.

Lockheed Martin

"Procuring large numbers of production jets while still working to deliver test jets and mature manufacturing processes does not seem prudent," the report states.

The JSF program, personified by the F-35 Lighting II, is a joint international venture led by the United States and the United Kingdom. The report calls this the DOD's most complex and ambitious aircraft acquisition and the linchpin of the military's plan to modernize its tactical air forces.

Chronic manufacturing inefficiencies, parts problems, design changes, and a steep learning curve have slowed delivery of test aircraft, according to the watchdog agency, even as DOD wants to ramp up production of line aircraft. Speeding up the delivery of 169 aircraft by 2015 will require billions in additional funding, "magnifying the financial risk to the government" and adding years to the development schedule, according to the GAO.

Contractors say they'll have the problems fixed and all the test aircraft delivered by next year. But by that time, the DOD plans to have already purchased 62 operational aircraft, according to the report. As currently configured, the DOD is at liberty to spend $57 billion on 360 aircraft, even before it completes flight testing. The contractor has extended the manufacturing schedule three times.

In 2007, the DOD decided to cut back on test aircraft and flight tests and rely instead on "state-of-the-art simulation labs, a flying test bed, and desk studies to verify nearly 83 percent of JSF capabilities." Ground testing to this extent is not a proven substitute for actual test flights, the report warns.

The single-seat, single-engine multi-role strike fighter has something for everyone. It does stealth, air-to-air, close air support, tactical bombing, and air defense missions. It can take off and land on conventional runways, do short takeoff and vertical-landing, or land on a carrier. The project features a mixed bag of contractors as well, with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems leading an international team of suppliers and manufacturers.