This column, a regular feature, was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. The book on America’s biggest boondoggle:
Last week, the Government Accountability Office issued the latest report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, warning that “delays in testing of the jet’s software may hinder delivery of the warfighting capabilities the military services expect” for an additional 15 months. This means that the jets are unlikely to be ready until August 2016, at the earliest, instead of what had been a July 2015 deadline.
This GAO report was the latest of 15 issued by the government watchdog since 2001. They catalog a mind-boggling series of cost over-runs, delays and denials of reality that make the F-35 a parody of defense contractors (led in this case by the Keystone Cops at Lockheed Martin), Pentagon and Washington dysfunction.
The plane was supposed to begin being delivered in 2010, with the total cost projected at a record-shattering (and much attacked) $233 billion. By last year the official acquisition cost was estimated to be $390 billion — though that is likely to rise with this latest delay.
Meantime, reports persist, from the GAO and elsewhere, that the plane has bugs that still haven’t been fixed and that it will never deliver all the capabilities promised.
Because the Pentagon has now decided to purchase 14 percent fewer planes than first planned (down to 2,443 jets from 2,852), the cost per plane — not counting amounts to be added by these new delays — is now $159 million. That’s almost double the original $81 million per plane.
According to this construction data web site, seven or eight new high schools across the country could be built for the $151 million cost of one of Lockheed Martin’s F-35’s.
The latest GAO report also noted that in addition to these acquisition costs “the F-35 fleet is estimated to cost around $1 trillion to operate and support over its lifetime.”
The story of the F-35 should be a book. The over-promises, profligacy and mishaps are so ridiculous and so outsized that this could be a tale as hilarious as it is cautionary.
The writer could even organize the chapters around that waterfall of GAO reports. The first, written as the program was getting underway in 2001, could use this excerpt to open:
Although the [F-35] has made good progress in some technology areas, the program may not meet its affordability objective because critical technologies are not projected to be matured to levels GAO believes would indicate a low risk program at the planned start of engineering and manufacturing development in October 2001.
Four years later, in this March 2005 report, the GAO warned:
GAO found that the original business case for the JSF program has proven to be unexecutable. …. The first delivery of initial operational capabilities to the warfighter have been delayed 2 years so far. The program’s current acquisition strategy does not fully follow the intent of DOD’s evolutionary, knowledge-based acquisition policy that is based on best practices.
And by 2010, the GAO seemed pretty much disgusted with the whole project:
The JSF program continues to struggle with increased costs and slowed progress — negative outcomes that were foreseeable as events have unfolded over several years…. By December 2009, only 4 of 13 test aircraft had been delivered and labor hours to build the aircraft had increased more than 50 percent above earlier estimates. Late deliveries hamper the development flight test program and affect work on production aircraft…. Collectively, testing and technical challenges will likely add more costs and time to development, affecting delivery of warfighter requirements and hampering start-up of pilot and maintainer training and initial operational testing.
This could also be an instructive business and management saga. Not just because of all the screw-ups, but also because, in the last two years, the program appears to have come under better management. Thus, this latest GAO report has an intriguing graph charting new labor and manufacturing efficiencies, and notes steps Lockheed Martin has taken to improve coordination of the program’s “1,500 domestic suppliers and 80 international suppliers spread across 11 countries.”
Someone please write this story of the country that couldn’t fly or shoot straight. Bring to life the people behind this fiasco, the obstacles they faced and all the wrong turns they made.
Tell us what happened in the halls of the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin, Congress and the White House to produce this disaster. Tell us about the frustrated staffers at the Pentagon or Lockheed, if any, who wanted to do the right thing, or who wanted to blow the whistle. Tell us about the cover-ups and the efforts to keep the GAO auditors at bay. Tell us about the lobbyists who kept Congress at bay, despite all the GAO evidence.