Joint Strike Fighter Project Criticized by GAO

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from Lockheed Martin is the most expensive defense program in history. Costs could reach $1 trillion, between buying the aircraft and supporting it for decades.

Now the Government Accountability Office says the JSF may end up costing even more.

The F-35 has been in the sites of those looking to cut big, over-budget defense programs. On top of current costs, a new report from the GAO says delays in development, and the Pentagon's desire to speed up purchases, could add another $33.4 billion, "magnifying the financial risk to the government."

The GAO criticizes Lockheed for "significantly delaying" the delivery of test aircraft because of "manufacturing inefficiencies and parts problems." Only two of 13 test aircraft have been delivered, but the report adds Lockheed "is taking positive steps to improve operations". All the test aircraft should be delivered by next year, but the Pentagon plans to purchase 62 operational F-35s by then, with plans to quickly buy more.

"Procuring large numbers of production jets while still working to deliver test jets...does not seem prudent" the GAO report says. adding that the accelerated purchase plan allows "little time for error discovery and rework." The Defense Department plans to test many of the F-35s capabilities through the use of simulators, with only 17 percent to be verified through actual flying. "Despite advances," says the GAO report, "the ability to extensively substitute for flight testing has not yet been demonstrated."

Joint Strike Fighter F-35 from Lockheed Martin.
Lockheed Martin
Joint Strike Fighter F-35 from Lockheed Martin.

Meantime, the second largest defense program ever, the aerial re-fueling tanker program, remains tabled. The Wall Street Journal reports that some in Congress are pushing the Air Force to split any contract between the original winner, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, which is still in the running after winning an appeal at the GAO.

With so many defense programs under fire, and with President Obama promising to wind down the war in Iraq, major contractors are striking out for new territory. Today, Northrop made a play for global warming. Robert Burke, vice president of Northrop's Aerospace Systems, is promoting use of the company's unmanned Global Hawk aircraft to collect atmospheric data.

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"While our science community has made impressive progress," Burke said in a statement, "there's still a lot we don't understand, and mitigating uncertainty is essential."

A new type of mission, for a new type of war.