By Marina Malenic

Burgeoning costs and schedule delays on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program occurred as the result of insufficient funding for initial prototypes of the aircraft, the Defense Department’s top acquisition official said last week.

The F-35 “leads the way in all recent cost-growth analyses” of weapons programs, John Young, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, writes in a Jan. 30 memo to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials. Young said the failure to build realistic F-35 prototypes led to unrealistic cost and weight estimates.

The most recent Pentagon estimate, prepared in late 2007, pegs the development and production cost for 2,400 F-35 aircraft at $298 billion. That number was up nearly $60 billion from estimates prepared when the program began, according to Young’s memo, and pending estimates are expected to reveal even more cost overruns.

Because the Defense Department requested that contractors Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] build “technology demonstrators” rather than “true prototypes,” inaccurate assessments about technical maturity were made.

“The future of JSF cost growth was largely written in 2001, when budget and pricing decisions were made based on inadequate knowledge gained from the JSF technology demonstrators,” Young writes.

Young commented on 42 key acquisitions in the memo, highlighting lessons from several programs experiencing similar cost growth and schedule delays. For example, he criticized the Army’s massive modernization effort, the Future Combat Systems, as having too “fluid” a program strategy, while he faulted the V-22 Osprey program for proceeding with immature technology due to congressional reversal of the Pentagon’s decision to terminate it.

Young said the main underlying lesson of the data gleaned from such efforts is that immature technologies should not be hurried into production.

“While it is characterized as cost growth, the reality is that low initial estimates made based on inadequate knowledge do not really constitute cost growth,” he writes.

Young also blamed the military services for “changing or excessive requirements.” Top examples include the Joint Tactical Radio System, which has been plagued by delays and budget overruns, and the Army’s effort to upgrade its UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.

To counter this tendency, Young announced that he is “freezing requirements in my acquisition decision memoranda (ADMs).”