A new report calls on the Pentagon to take new actions to keep the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s reliability and modernization efforts on cost and on schedule.

The report, released Monday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and titled “F-35 JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER: Action Needed to Improve Reliability and Prepare for Modernization Efforts,” notes that the fifth-generation aircraft program has made some progress on maintainability since the GAO’s last annual audit in 2018. However, it has only met half of the targets meant to improve those areas, which indicates the aircraft could be more expensive to maintain over its lifecycle unless new steps are taken.

An F-35C during clean wing flight qualifications and loads testing near NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

“While the Department of Defense (DOD) has a plan for improving R&M [reliability and maintainability], its guidance is not in line with GAO’s acquisition best practices or federal internal control standards as it does not include specific, measurable objectives, align improvement projects to meet those objectives, and prioritize funding,” the report said, adding, “If the R&M requirements are not met, the warfighter may have to settle for a less reliable and more costly aircraft than originally envisioned.”

The GAO made five recommendations for the program, with the majority related to the F-35’s Reliability and Management Improvement Program (RMIP). The watchdog organization noted that its 2018 report urged the department to identify which steps it needed to take to update and complete R&M requirements – and that the DoD concurred with this recommendation – but that substantive steps had yet to be taken.

“As the program is considering revisions to its [RMIP], … it is in a good position to clearly define and communicate its R&M objectives for the aircraft to meet the targets under all of its eight R&M metrics,” the report said. “Until it does so, the program office will not know whether the steps it is taking now are sufficient to ensure each F-35 variant achieves its R&M requirements in the future.”

The F-35 has overcome “significant hurdles” over its 18 years of development for the baseline aircraft, which was completed last year, the report noted. It resolved a variety of deficiencies that had been found during developmental testing, leading to a decision to begin the formal operational test and evaluation phase in anticipation of a full-rate production decision by the end of 2019 (Defense Daily, Dec. 6, 2018).

However, “four of the eight [reliability and modernization] metrics continue to fall short of meeting performance targets,” the report said. “Program officials stated that the Operational Requirements Document (ORD) R&M targets need to be re-evaluated to determine more realistic R&M performance metrics but have not yet taken actions to do so.”

Another worrying factor is that the Pentagon plans to begin its Block 4 modernization upgrades – expected to cost $10.5 billion – in 2019 without a true business case set in place with independent estimates for the lifecycle cost and schedule forecast, the GAO report said.

“As we have reported in the past, the F-35 program started its development before it was ready. It is now at risk of doing the same thing with the Block 4 modernization effort,” it said.

“Block 4 may follow in the footsteps of the F-35’s baseline program which saw significant cost and schedule growth during its development. This approach leaves the F-35 program, DOD, Congress, and the U.S. military services without key information to make decisions regarding Block 4.”

GAO conducted this performance audit from June 2018 to April 2019. It’s the fourth such performance report it has conducted on the F-35, as directed by a provision in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

The report’s release Monday follows an earlier GAO report published April 25 that warned of the multiple issues and challenges to the F-35’s supply chain management and provided eight new recommendations for the Pentagon to address (Defense Daily, April 25).