For the first time since the Government Accountability Office began conducting annual assessments of the Pentagon’s tri-service F-35 fighter program, the agency is offering no new recommendations on how management of the effort can be improved. In the fourth of six annual assessments mandated by the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, GAO credited the Department of Defense with responding positively to its past recommendations, and declined to issue new advice.
The GAO assessment found that the F-35 program met seven of its top ten program objectives for 2012 while making substantial progress on an eighth — in effect, grading the program at a low “B” level, which is much better than it has fared in the past according to the agency’s demanding performance criteria. Among the areas rated a success were meeting developmental test milestones, demonstrating an improved pilot’s helmet display, commencing pilot training, improving production cost performance, and maturing the F-35 supplier network.
The two objectives not met were delivering 40 planes during the year — only 30 planes were delivered — and correcting the Earned Value Management System that measures program progress. GAO attributes the shortfall in deliveries to a prolonged labor strike at the main assembly facility in Fort Worth and manufacturing delays. With regard to the deficient management system, the agency observes that “EVMS compliance is a long-standing issue and concerns all Lockheed Martin aircraft produced for DOD, not just the F-35.”
The new GAO study follows a previous report recently cited by Senator John McCain stating that the F-35 program now is on a path of steady, sustainable progress. Although challenges remain, the flight test program, software development effort, and other key tasks are being accomplished expeditiously. The cost of each plane and engine is falling with each successive production lot, and prime contractor Lockheed Martin remains convinced that it will eventually be able to sell the most common version of the F-35 for no more than what the latest refinement of the legacy F-16 costs (about $70 million today).
Unlike F-16, though, the F-35 will be the most survivable and versatile single-engine fighter ever built, and meet the needs of three different U.S. military services. F-16 was conceived as a low-cost air-superiority fighter that later took on additional roles. F-35 was designed to do far more from its first days of operation, and to survive in places where no sane person would ever fly a Cold War fighter. The fact that GAO has given the F-35 program its most positive assessment ever suggests that America will dominate the skies over future battlefields — and the global fighter market — for many decades to come.