Tuesday, March 20, 2012

U.S. government auditor slams F-35 cost overruns

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has issued a damning report on the "unprecedented" development costs of the F-35.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has issued a damning report on the "unprecedented" development costs of the F-35.

Photograph by: Handout , Lockheed Martin Aeronautics

Weeks before the auditor general is expected to release a scathing report on Canada's plans to purchase F-35 fighter jets, the United States Government Accountability Office issued a damning report of its own on the project Tuesday.

The report raises red flags about the "unprecedented" costs of the program, serious technical hang-ups like a faulty helmet displays and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter's poor overall performance in tests.

"The long-stated intent that the Joint Strike Fighter would deliver an affordable, highly common fifth-generation aircraft that could be acquired in large numbers could be in question," said Michael Sullivan, the Government Accountability Office's director of acquisition management, according to Bloomberg News.

Lockheed Martin Corp.'s first 63 F-35 fighter jets have exceeded their combined target cost by $1 billion, the GAO testified at an American House Armed Services Committee hearing on tactical aviation Tuesday.

The GAO places the per-unit cost of the F-35 at between $137 and $162 million, far more than the $75 million price tag long held up by Canada's Conservative government.

The F-35 project is in running into severe problems because it is trying to design, build and test at the same time, the report says.

"Much of the instability in the JSF program has been and continues to be the result of highly concurrent development, testing, and production activities," the report says. "The program has not yet demonstrated a stable design and manufacturing processes capable of efficient production."

One example of the myriad problems facing the plane involves the helmet-mounted display, a high-tech system that projects flight and weapons data onto the pilot's visor. Software problems have put the helmet on the back burner as a less capable alternate helmet is developed, adding $80 million in project costs.

Such changes require modifications to the overall design, the report says, resulting in higher overall costs and further production delays.

Another issue is that the F-35's technological bells and whistles require 24 million lines of computer code to operate. This is six times more code than is found in an F-18 Super Hornet, and electronic coding issues have affected both the cost and timelines of the project.

Frank Kendall, the Defense Department's acting undersecretary for acquisition, said the plane's developer needs to prove its product isn't a lemon.

"It is important that Lockheed Martin demonstrate performance and help us establish confidence that the F-35 is a stable and capable platform," Kendall told the committee, according to Bloomberg News.

The F-35 program achieved only six of its 11 primary objectives in 2011, the report says, adding that to date "only four per cent of the mission system requirements for full capability has been verified."

Full-rate production has been delayed five years, and testing of a fully integrated F-35 aircraft is now expected in 2015 at the earliest.

NDP defence procurement critic Matthew Kellway said the report is a strong indictment of the project.

"I can't see the auditor general coming out with a report that's at all inconsistent," he said.

Kellway said the fundamental problem with the F-35 program is that Lockheed Martin is trying to sell something that doesn't yet exist, and that they are "wildly over-optimistic" about their ability to refine new technologies in time for production.

"As time goes on they'll be getting fewer and fewer planes for the $9 billion (the government) said they were willing to spend," he said.

A spokesperson for Associate Minister of Defence Julian Fantino would not offer comment on the GAO report.

"Our plan is to continue in the program, but we have not signed a contract for a purchase, which retains flexibility to remain within our budget," wrote Terence Scheltema in an email.


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