Pentagon watchdog: F-35 program rife with production flaws

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Brendan Bordelon Contributor
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The Pentagon’s inspector general recorded hundreds of serious problems with the ongoing production of the F-35 stealth fighter, a considerable setback for a program already mired in delays and saddled with an enormous price tag.

The DoD’s watchdog issued a report on Monday warning that the litany of manufacturing mistakes and quality control concerns would reduce the aircraft’s effectiveness and add considerably to the program’s projected $1.5 trillion cost.

“The F-35 Program did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software,” the report said. “This could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost.”

The inspector general discovered 363 separate issues with the way Lockheed Martin and five other defense contractors are building the plane, most having to do with faulty designs and sloppy production techniques.

One subcontractor failed to meet performance standards ensuring that the electronic cockpit display is resistant to interference and enemy jamming. Another did not properly protect the aircraft’s landing gear from corrosion in high-humidity environmentFs. Yet another did not meet proper software specifications related to the plane’s life support systems.

Workers at Lockheed Martin violated procedure by gluing fasteners to a wing without gloves, potentially contaminating the adhesive. Damaged aircraft assembly components went unreported, even after being brought to a supervisor’s attention. In some cases, installation and assembly instructions given to workers were incorrect.

The F-35 program has been a major headache for the Pentagon since its inception in 2001, with contractors running vastly over-budget while failing to meet deadlines or develop essential systems.

After a projected $1 trillion in 30-year maintenance costs was labelled unsustainable by DoD officials, the Pentagon began desperately searching for effective cost-cutting measures. But as the inspector general’s findings illustrate, that goal remains elusive. Scrap, work and repair rates per aircraft fell just over half a percent, “only a moderate change towards reducing costs.”

“Our contractor assessments indicate that greater emphasis on quality assurance, requirement flow down, and process discipline is necessary, if the Government is to attain lower program costs,” the report said.

“This was a wake-up call that we had to be more rigorous,” said Eric Branyan, Lockheed’s F-35 vice president of program management, in a phone interview with Reuters. “We take this very seriously.”

The Pentagon is planning to purchase around 2,500 of the next-generation stealth fighter, and contractors have produced around 150 incomplete aircraft so far. Total procurement costs currently hover at around $500 billion, with a further $1 trillion reserved for future maintenance costs.

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