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At some bases that fly the older models, the availability rate is far lower: Sometimes more than 60 percent of their Fs are not operable. In and , only about half of the F fleet was available to fly at a given time, with the rest down for maintenance. A major cause of Fs sitting idle on the ground is a shortage of replacement parts. Lockheed and Defense Department officials have blamed each other for the problem, and there probably is plenty of fault to go around. The planes require a dizzying number of components sourced from different suppliers, and replacement parts are not getting to the flight line when they are needed.

For instance, Fs have encountered problems with the canopy, the glass enclosure that protects the cockpit, and jets can sometimes wait for a year to receive the necessary repair. Lockheed has begun fronting its own money to buy spare parts in advance, with the expectation that the Defense Department will repay the company later.

As Lockheed is responsible for building a much larger number of jets and prioritizes delivering those new aircraft to its customers, the Fs already in operation will face even stiffer competition for spare parts.

Slow and complicated maintenance is not a minor problem. And managing these costs only grows more critical as more Fs come online. An important measure of the cost, sustainability and value of the new jet is its total operating cost. One solution favored by Winter during his recent tenure was so-called agile software development. Coders generate software upgrades or patches in a matter of days or weeks, pass them along to users to test and then push out the update more widely if the changes are successful. That speed would be a major improvement on the months, or in some cases a year or more, that it can take defense contractors to deliver a software patch right now.

Winter also made it a priority to push for drastic streamlining in the process for testing new software in the F Under the existing procedures, the Pentagon can require test flights for more than different factors or functions when a new software load is installed. Winter worked to cut that down to a single validation flight, to test just the software and the systems it affects, rather than retesting the performance of the whole aircraft.

But those closest to the F program, the engineers, software developers and midlevel managers, express the same things over and over. Frustration that the tremendous scope of the program keeps them from being able to do more to fix it; and a wounded sense of pride for the impressive technological advances they have achieved, but that often seem lost in the intractable tangle of complications and setbacks.

These tests are meant to shake out any last bugs before full-rate production starts. In June, Winter said that none of the remaining problems are serious enough to delay full production. But even after the testing ends, there will inevitably be issues in need of fixes.

There will always be new threats to face, new upgrades to develop, new technical problems to solve. Defense Department officials continue to assert that the adaptiveness of the F makes it the best option to stand up to such uncertainties. Valerie Insinna is the air warfare reporter at Defense News.

2012 Spring Report of the Auditor General of Canada

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of At War delivered to your inbox every week. For more coverage of conflict, visit nytimes. Log In. Supported by. Things got rocky pretty quickly. The Air Force wanted a stealthy plane, and those stealth requirements drove a JSF design which, at least initially, did not have internal weapons bays.

That didn't sit well with the Marines, who would demand their inclusion. This design change would add weight to the F So would the Marines' desire for a vertical takeoff plane, something the USMC demanded because it said it had no alternative replacement for the Harrier. Building one plane for three branches wasn't the only place the JSF program ran into trouble.

The Pentagon hoped to take advantage of "concurrency": that is, the idea of keeping down costs by building production planes at the same time it was finishing ground and flight testing. Never mind that most aspects of the F, from its engines and flight control system to its software and autonomic logistics system, were still in early stages of development at the program's outset and far from finished technologies ready to be integrated. You can imagine what happened. During the flight testing, the military found the F needed structural and electronic modifications. The fact that it had already produced many of the aircraft made the fix far more expensive.

In the decade following , the program faced over a dozen major setbacks. They just kept coming and coming. In , the FB was more than 2, pounds overweight, unable to meet its performance goals. In , the Government Accountability Office GAO warned that, as a result of the policy of concurrent development, retrofitting aircraft with systems that were not fully functional or working as intended could be terribly expensive.

Starting in , suspected Chinese cyber intrusions resulted in the theft of several terabytes of data related to the F's design and electronics systems. T his attack and another hack of BAE Systems which makes the F's flight control software, electronic warfare systems, aft fuselage, as well as its horizontal and vertical tails forced hardware and software redesigns, adding more cost and delays.

From a troublesome helmet mounted cueing system to inadequate ejection seats and logistics software, the F has continued to face challenges. Problems assembling the F's four-piece wing and structural fatigue in one of the bulkheads supporting the wing on the FB, combinged with a strike at Lockheed Martin, forced reduced initial production buys. The cascade of woes nearly resulted in the cancellation of the FB in To avoid further delays resulting from design changes, in the Pentagon accepted a reduced combat radius for the FA and a longer takeoff run for the FB.

The FB's estimated combat radius was reduced by 15 percent.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program

FBs had to refuel 15 times on the recent transatlantic flight. Who gets the blame for a year misadventure? In , the GAO's Michael Sullivan asserted that Lockheed had failed to get an early start on systems engineering and had not understood the technologies involved at the program's launch. But a RAND study the same year found the three F variants had drifted so far apart during development that having a single base design may prove to be more expensive than if services had just built separate aircraft tailored to their own requirements from the get-go.

And to this the fact that enormous defense projects almost always go over-budget and you've got a recipe for the start-and-stop, muddled first two decades of the F Cost estimates for the F have changed yearly over the past 15 years. In , the ballooning costs — which put the cost per plane more than 89 percent over the baseline estimate — triggered a breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a law that forces the Pentagon and Congress to evaluate whether to cancel a troubled program.


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But because the F was intended to replace so many legacy fighter jets, military leaders essentially had no choice but to keep going. One factor that kept sending the F program off course was the level of control Lockheed exerted over the program. Lockheed also manages the supply chain and is responsible for much of the maintenance for the plane. This gave Lockheed significant power over almost every part of the F enterprise.

Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F Lightning II - Morson Projects

The company was allowed to manage the test program and had the power, for example, to defer more challenging tests until later. In past programs, the government had controlled testing and had aimed to find any difficult, high-priority problems early, so they could be addressed as soon as possible. Because Lockheed was not required to report its financials in detail, the program office itself did not have a clear picture of exactly how much an F truly cost and how the money was being used.

Costs and complications were spiraling. Someone needed to intervene before the Defense Department lost control entirely, Bogdan thought. The audience was shocked. At military conferences and trade shows, Defense Department officials and their contractors typically boast about their collaborative efforts.

Instead, Bogdan publicly shamed the defense behemoth, criticizing the lagging production time and skyrocketing costs. At that point, there was a lot to rebuke. The Pentagon had restricted the F from flying near thunderstorms after flight tests revealed that its lightning-protection system was deficient. The program office and Lockheed had figured out some ways to cut the cost of manufacturing the fighter. More flight testing was happening. The lightning-protection system was redesigned in , and the F can now fly in bad weather.

A series of hardware and software changes to the helmet have solved the image-quality problems. Still, as problems were fixed, new ones surfaced.


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Perhaps most damning was a report by War Is Boring, a well-read military blog, citing a document by an Air Force test pilot that asserted that the F could not defeat the s-era F in aerial combat. If that was true, the staggeringly expensive high-tech jet was already obsolete before it would ever take to the skies in wartime. It emerged that the assessment was provisional and incomplete. Nevertheless, the characterization of the F as an overpriced but mediocre dogfighter has haunted it ever since.

The Marine Corps, which began normal flying operations with the jet in , became the first military branch to fly the F in combat when it used the jets for airstrikes in Afghanistan last year. Both the Air Force and Navy are also now operating their own Fs. Pressure from Congress also helped shape the F into a more successful program. He moved forward with a carrot-and-stick approach, approving additional funding for the F as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee while at the same time regularly grilling Defense Department officials during congressional hearings.

However, as recently as June , at least 13 Category 1 deficiencies were still on the books.