The Pentagon’s inability to decide on mission requirements for the F-35 advanced fighter jet program sent costs for the latest upgrade skyrocketing and far behind schedule, officials told Congress on Tuesday.
The software basis for the latest round of F-35 production, known as Block 4, was initially designed with 66 capabilities for a cost of $10.6 billion and scheduled for completion in 2026, but by 2023 had blown up to $16.5 billion and the completion date pushed back to 2029, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from May. But, the Department of Defense (DOD) keeps adding desired mission sets to the aircraft and leaving Congress in the dark about what has been changed to trigger the price increases and delays, GAO director for contracting and national security acquisitions Jon Ludwigson told a House panel.
“When you get to the root cause, some of the challenges that have emerged is because [DOD] didn’t have requirements” in place, Ludwigson told Democratic New Jersey Rep. Donald Norcross, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. “They didn’t necessarily have a firm sense of what was technically achievable, they didn’t have a strong basis for understanding how long these things were going to take,” so “it became a bit of a journey of discovery and took time.”
“Congress does not have a clear picture of the reason for the growing F-35 modernization costs,” Ludwigson said in a written report to Congress released ahead of the hearing.
The F-35 program office initially conceived of the Block 4 upgrade for the Lockheed Martin-made jet as incremental, able to take on new missions as different kinds of threats emerged, Ludgwigson said. It was supposed to improve efficiency, delivering software upgrades in four separate drops rather than all at once, which would take several years to reach full maturity, according to the GAO.
“Unfortunately that’s hard to do in public sector space,” Ludgwigson told Congress.
“That 66 capabilities number was difficult for us to get our hands around from the beginning,” he said. The F-35’s designers wanted it to evolve, “and that’s what happened, because it wasn’t bounded with a specific set of requirements, a specific limitation in terms of this is what it’s going to be, in terms of composition, cost and schedule.”
DOD continually changed its idea of the F-35’s mission requirements. As the Pentagon added capabilities and potentially removed or reconfigured others, the number of capabilities jumped to 80. The program failed to set “realistic expectations,” and then failed to carry out the necessary steps or hire enough staff to meet those expectations.
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The F-35 has quickly become the DOD’s most expensive weapon, estimated to cost $1.7 trillion over the program’s lifespan, according to the GAO. Five years ago, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office decided to modernize the jet, which DOD hoped would to take over a wide variety of missions currently tasked to different kinds of military aircraft.
“We have added some capabilities to that aircraft in a very short period of time and my team is doing everything we can to move the ball forward there,” Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, who heads the F-35 program, told the committee.
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