Stealthy Jet Draws Flak by Escalating Cost, Delays

Three reports being released, by the Pentagon’s Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs), by the Government Accountability Office and by the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), are casting more shadows on the F-35 Lightning II program recently scrutinized by almost every senior Pentagon official.

The program is hitting many obstacles as it struggles to transition from development to production. The DCMA report indicates the root causes in the production process while DTOE elevates the issues concerning the flight test phase. Realizing the program is dragging 18 months delay, Secretary of Defense Gates took defensive measures - firing Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Heinz, the Pentagon’s F-​​35 program manager, pouring additional $2.8 billion to the System Design & Development (SDD) phase and extending this phase by one year, to absorb the delays. The additional funding withdrawn from early production will fund an additional aircraft for the test fleet, thus trimming the projected delay from 30 months down to 13. (more...)

Photo above: The third F-35B aircraft joins the test fleet at Patuxent River in February. Photo: Lockheed Martin

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How this decision will affect the program's planned orders has not been decided yet. In 18 months some 185 jets are planned to be on order and advance procurement contracts should be signed for 156 more.

These problems are indicative of the program's transition from development to production. This complex task must synchronize clockwork supply-chain process, delivering all necessary parts to the assembly line on time, to be assembled into the aircraft. Every delay, change or disruption affects the whole process and causes mounting delays. From the start, the industry team developing the aircraft was confident that advanced technology and collaboration will be able to solve these issues, but they didn’t. Furthermore, measures Lockheed Martin took to solve these problems may have opened one bottleneck in the assembly line but caused more delays in the flight testing phase. Test flights are progressing slower than planned, with fewer test aircraft available to share the burden. Last year the program accomplished only 16 flight-test sorties, of 168 planned.

These delays and the program's escalating cost could result in the JSF program subjection to an automatic and painful review under the Nunn-McCurdy cost-escalation limits - if a program’s estimated unit-procurement costs exceed 150% of what was planned at the outset, the Pentagon must confirm to Congress that it is essential, its cost is justified and its management is efficient. Within 60 days, congress also has to evaluate alternative solution to the requirement.

DCMA Reports Unveil JSF Production Issues

Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) reports reviewing the production of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are highlighting a range of issues hitherto unreported by the press, that could have contributed to secretary Robert Gates' decision to shift funding from the low-rate initial production (LRIP) to the System Design and Development and (SDD) phase, thus delaying the production of the aircraft by more than 12 months. [The DCMA reports were released Center of Defense Information (CDI), Straus Military Reform Project.]

According to the project director, Winslow Wheeler, the reports reveal several issues, indicative of setbacks and disruptions at the Lockheed Martin production line, at Forth Worth, Texas. Supply chain delays are of primary concern, as parts and subassemblies are arriving late at the assembly lines. On average, contractor's schedules are met by 75% only, meaning that every fourth part is not available on time, causing production delays. As a result, assembly of subsystems at Lockheed Martin slips back, causing delays in the final assembly. Where some phases are performed immaturely, and aircraft roll out of the production line incomplete, and incapable of flight.

Delivery of non flyable aircraft caused further delays down the line, as these new aircraft have to be completed (AKA 'maintained', in the words of the DCMA report) further delaying flight testing. When parts were desperately needed for the test aircraft, parts were scavenged from the kits awaiting assembly at the LRIP production line, causing further delays in the production of those fighters.

DCMA reports raise questions about the state of affair within Lockheed Martin's flagship program. Just six months ago Secretary of Defense Gates crowned this program as the mainstay of the free world's airpowers. In the sales speeches the JSF program was described as introducing new standards of efficiency, flexibility and maturity that will surpass legacy programs, offering superior design and manufacturing, unprecedented testing, and super-efficient maintenance and support.

However, in reality, the program lags behind schedule, suffers embarrassing supply chain delays, some blamed in immature production processes of parts built of composite materials. But there are other indications that the designers may not be in synch with production, as one of the report stated "…the number of major changes has exceeded projections. Additionally, the impact of timing these changes and the disruption to the floor were not anticipated...” Although major CR’s [Change Requests] can be expected in a complex project as the development of a fighter airplane, the synchronized, computerized design environment employed with the program should have dealt with this issue and reduce the number of CRs, compared to legacy aircraft. Dealing with unexpectedly high CR means something went wrong in this process…

As mentioned in the DCMA report dated October 2009, Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) aircraft delivery rate was on average 80 days late. The rate significantly deteriorated in April and stayed at that deteriorated rate. This average is not indicative of the whole picture as some of the aircraft accumulated delays measured in months - AF-6 was three months late; while AF-7 is almost five month behind schedule. However, DCMA concurs with the current projection expressed by some media reports that the by the time LRIP 3 rolls out these delays will be over.

The report mentioned an issue with “Maintenance and Quality Verification" that triggered maintenance and quality verification 'stand-down' to 'determine systemic root causes for increasing aircraft impoundment and suspension of operations incidents to date.' The inspection focused on the Software, Rework/Repairs, System Check Out Procedures (SCOPs) and Aerospace Equipment Instructions (AEIs), implementing improved inspection process.

DTOE Report Lists Flight JSF Test Challenges

Another vocal critic of the program is the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOTE), and the Joint Estimating Team (JET) formed to investigate the JSF program have both released negative reports leading the Secretary of the Air Force and Secretary of Defense to openly criticize the program, sofar considered to be an example for joint services and multinational program advantages. (Aviation Week: F-35 Faces A Troubled 2010 by Bill Sweetman)

The Director of Test & Evaluation (DTOE), Michael Gilmore, criticized the performance of the JSF program from the flight testing and validation side. According to Gilmore, also indicates delays in the software testing process, as all software blocks had been delayed by a year, along with the availability of the BF-4 – the first F-35 which will be equipped with full mission systems.

Gilmore warned that modeling and simulation is still at an early stage, as most of the labs and models have not been accredited to provide valid substitutes for aircraft testing. This process is mandatory before such tests could be accepted. The report also mentions several technical issues, including clutch heating issues that were discovered in the hover pit last year and delayed the STOVL testing, in addition to other thermal management problems that will be dealt with by replacing the fuel pump with a more efficient system. Ejection seat and canopy removal mechanism remain an unsolved issue, and limit envelope expansion below 450 knots. Even more troublesome is the flight testing at high angle of attack, expected to be performed only by the end of 2011. At that time, about 185 F-35s are planned to be in production and will eventually ship to the users without such a critical aspect being thoroughly tested. At present, (March 1, 2010) full rate production decision is set to November 2015.

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