F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program Management Was "Acquisition Malpractice" DoD Says

Last week, Frank Kendall, the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics who was recently nominated by President Obama to permanently take over the position, said in a speech (pdf) at the Center for Strategic & International Studies that the procurement strategy for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program was an example of "acquisition malpractice." Back in December, Vice Admiral David Venlet, the current F-35 program executive officer, characterized the strategy as merely a "miscalculation."

The flagrant failures that were the impetus for Kendall's statement have been obvious for years. But the Department of Defense (DoD) has been loath to admit them, for obvious reasons. Recently, the DoD said that F-35 production would be slowed to save money—a decision that will obviously provide time to counteract the effects of the program's poor decision making with respect to acquisitions.

 According to a Reuters story, Kendall said that:

"Putting the F35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done... But we did it."

The benefits and risks involved in defense program acquisition concurrency (aka "buy before you fly" or "pay me now or pay me later"), especially in military aircraft programs, have been debated for decades (pdf). If the technical risks are manageable, developmental concurrency permits a reduction in both aircraft acquisition time and cost. Otherwise, difficult problems with no quick fixes cause acquisition costs to explode because aircraft that have already have been produced need to be fixed.

Referring to the F-35, Kendall said that there were "optimistic predictions" at the start of production. In other words, it had been assumed that there were "good enough design tools and good enough simulations and modeling that we wouldn't have to worry about finding problems in test," he said. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this optimism—which the program's leadership held to despite warnings from the GAO (pdf) and others (pdf)—proved to be unfounded.

Kendall reports that the DoD is "finding problems with all three F-35 variants that are the types of things that [you're always going to find] in a state-of-the-art, next-generation, fighter aircraft ." In other words, issues such as design flaws in wings and the tail hook, improperly packed parachutes, and lower than expected combat acceleration, have cropped up.

The initial delivery date for the F-35A variant to be used by the U.S. Air Force has crept forward from 2008 to the current estimate of 2018 or even later. The continued schedule slippage has caused the Air Force to ask Congress for $3 billion in additional funds to extend the life of more than 300 F-16s that can't be retired as expected.

The acquisition cost of the F-35 is currently estimated at $382 billion, with another $600 billion or more needed to support its operations over the course of its currently projected lifespan. Despite the well documented problems, the DoD says it is committed to buying the F-35, mostly because it doesn't see itself as having any attractive alternative options.

Kendall's statement, plus the slowdown of F-35 production, have spooked the program's international partners who were envisioned as potential customers. For example, Canada, which is committed to purchasing up to 65 F-35s, announced last Friday that it was calling for a meeting of the seven other international partners (Australia, Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey) to discuss the implications of the program's problems and rising costs. Canada, for instance, is now faced with the prospect of keeping its aging CF-18s well beyond their expected 2020 retirement date.

Kendall said that the acquisition problems for the F-35 and other DoD programs remind him of the movie "Groundhog Day" because he has been talking about the same issues year after year without any apparent progress in resolving them. I guess that means that my IEEE Spectrum article on "What's Wrong with Weapons Acquisition?" won't be overtaken by events anytime soon.

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