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Cost Of Pentagon’s Most Expensive Weapons Program Is Spiraling Out Of Control, Watchdog Finds

The cost of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program has skyrocketed $183 billion above initial cost estimates as production hurdles mount, a government watchdog found in a Tuesday report.

An engine cooling issue is the latest setback to the Pentagon’s $1.7 trillion F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter weapons program, which is now more than 10 years behind schedule and racked with multiple unexpected cost increases, the Government Accountability Office found in its annual report on the program. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense (DOD) hasn’t accounted to Congress for the cost increases or made a good-faith effort to look into a variety of options for upgrading the advanced aircraft engines.

Furthermore, delays in developing important technology updates for the modernized “Block 4” planes have jacked up costs to $16.5 billion, $1 billion more than when GAO last reported on the effort, according to the report. But, the Pentagon’s accounting to Congress for program cost increases muddles those incurred from added requirements to those emerging from previously-planned upgrades.

The F-35 Joint Program Office projected an additional $38 billion expenses for revamping jet engines for Block 4 jets and onward, primarily due to cooling demands discovered midway through the development process that were not addressed at the time, according to the GAO.

Air pressure generated from the engines supports the aircraft cooling systems — the power and thermal management system, or PTMS — which prevent critical subsystems like radar from overheating and reaching failure, according to GAO. However, both the engine and cooling system are working overtime as the jet gets additional capabilities added to it.

“The cooling system is over-tasked, requiring the engine to operate beyond its design parameters. The extra heat is increasing the wear on the engine, reducing its life and adding $38 billion in maintenance costs,” GAO wrote.

“DOD began development of the F-35 aircraft in 2001 without adequate knowledge of its critical technologies or a solid design,” GAO continued. “The misalignment of requirements with the engine and PTMS illustrates why it is important to fully understand the proposed designs at the beginning of an acquisition, prior to committing to development.

Some of the blame falls on contractors, both F-35 builder Lockheed Martin and sub-contractors, for failing to deliver airframes and parts on time, according to the report. In 2022, Lockheed was late on 50% of orders, the worst rate in six years.

An “Engine Core Upgrade” is in the works, and the Pentagon’s F-35 office office is “already very confident we can minimize” the impact of the $38 billion overhaul, a spokesperson told Bloomberg. The office is also considering various options for improving the PTMS that could be ready by the early 2030’s.

Lockheed Martin said “capabilities have continued to mature based on customer needs” and it “has efforts underway to account for and support these requirements,” according to Bloomberg.

DOD agreed in whole or part with most of GAO’s recommendations, including developing a process to report to Congress on differences between expected and actual program costs. However, it punted the responsibility of making sure engine modernization requirements are set and vetted to the military services departments.

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