Despite a two-month reprieve from sequestration, the Pentagon is still bracing for severe budget cuts of up to half a trillion dollars, which will come on top of $487 billion already cut from its planned spending over the next ten years.
But money woes are not the only challenges facing the Department of Defense. A recent report from the military’s chief evaluation officer should set off alarms about how America buys complex weapons systems. In fact, the Pentagon is gambling a large chunk of the military’s future on weapons programs that are struggling.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was designed to replace the current fighters used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. For the first time, all three major air arms of the U.S. military would share a common platform, each using its own variant. Once the Obama administration had killed the stealthy F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter went from being its complement to being its replacement. The large number of F-35s expected to be built — approximately 2,400 across all three services — is meant to make up in quantity what the fighter lacked in quality compared with the F-22. Development of the F-35 has become the costliest procurement program in the Pentagon’s history, at $400 billion and growing.
The program has been hobbled by numerous delays. Last week, the Pentagon’s chief test and evaluation officer, David Gilmore, sent his annual report to Congress. In it, he underscored the program’s “lack of maturity” and noted numerous problems with the plane’s development. Among them were failures of its stealthy coating (which peels off during high-speed, high-altitude flights), problems with the weapons-bay doors, continuing difficulties with the lift fan on the Marines’ version, cracks in the Marines’ version, problems with radar-tracking for weapons use, issues with the refueling system, and ongoing delays in development of the flight helmet (which is supposed to integrate much of the data and avionics in a revolutionary manner). In addition, software development and testing is running behind schedule — for a plane that will have over 8 million lines of computer code.
This isn’t the first time the Pentagon’s top tester has warned about the program’s weaknesses. Exactly a year ago, the same office in its annual report noted the “mixed results” of F-35 testing, which were nonetheless an improvement over those of the previous years, when test flights, for example, had fallen far behind schedule. The program has seen its Pentagon manager removed and new officials put in charge. These delays have led to cost increases, which the Defense Department has responded to by reducing the number of planes it is buying each year. That, in turn, drives the price of each plane even higher (around $100 million for the current Air Force version, but over $200 million for the early production models for the Navy and Marines). These problems have led some international partners in the program, most recently Canada, to rethink their plans to buy the F-35.
While the Pentagon would like to blame the plane’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, the real issue is the way the government went about the program. As Reuters notes, there has been “overlap between development, production and testing. The Pentagon planned that overlap from the start, but its top weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, has said that, in retrospect, that approach amounted to ‘acquisition malpractice.’”
Basically, the government thought it could save money by designing three variants of one plane for three different services while doing the three key activities of designing, building, and working out bugs all at the same time. There is not a single person in Washington or the defense industry who now defends that decision, made back in the 1990s. Some say the problems should have been predictable, but in the Clinton era of defense-budget cuts and consolidation, the Pentagon had an incentive to seek the cheap way out, and it gambled on a radically new way to build a fighter. Of course, at the time, the F-22, developed along more traditional lines, was also running into delays, and the technological and industrial challenges of building a next-generation stealth fighter were well known.