Somewhere along the way, government auditors and the Washington press corps got the mistaken idea that the program to design and develop the most complex fighter aircraft in history must go off without a hitch. Somehow many observers, including some with oversight responsibilities, seem unable to grasp the idea that the developmental phase of a major acquisition program is intended to work out the bugs in various technologies, ensure systems integration, explore the aircraft’s performance envelope and improve the quality and performance of systems and parts. This is also the period when the supply chain and the production line ramp up, the effects of the learning curve on quality begins to become apparent and initial performance data is fed back to the engineers in order to improve the quality of parts and systems.
Unfortunately, few of the individuals conducting the various F-35 program reviews and almost none of those reporting on the results to the public have the experience or capacity to put their findings into a meaningful context. Thus, the General Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent report on the F-135 engine that powers the Joint Strike Fighter warns ominously that the aircraft’s power plant is unreliable. In fact, what the data shows is that the limited number of engines produced to date have not met their projected reliability levels. What GAO doesn’t bother to tell its readers is that this is par for the course in the development of any new jet engine. If you go back and look at the reliability figures for the F-100 engine that powers the F-15 or the F-110 engine on the F-16 at the same time in their development and testing processes, the results would look the same as they do for the F-135. That is why you do a lot of early testing, to find the pieces and parts that don’t meet minimum standards and replace them.
As the GAO report points out, 40 percent of the developmental testing has yet to be performed. Developmental testing is where you find precisely those bugs and deficiencies that need to be corrected prior to full-rate production. If it were a perfect engine from day one, there would be no need for such testing. But that never happens. So you test, discover the problems and fix them.
In addition, because it cut off its analysis early last year, GAO was not able to review the reliability figures for the latest batch of F-135 engines, those that have in place improvements to parts that were failing too rapidly. According to reports from the field, the latest group of F-135 engines shows a dramatic improvement in reliability and mean-time-between-failure, actually well above the predicted curve. As the number of improved F-135 engines increases and older models are retrofitted with improved components, it is a virtual certainty that the program will hit all its projected marks for reliability and performance.
The Department of Defense Inspector General’s (IG) report is, if anything, even less impressive. It has virtually nothing to say about the Joint Strike Fighter or its engine. Rather, it found 61 instances of nonconformity with various management processes. Kind of like your camp counselor hassling you because you didn’t make your bed with hospital corners.
What is remarkable is not that there have been problems with the F-35 program but that so many of them, including serious technical challenges, have been resolved. The lift fan on the STOVL F-35B now works like a charm. The problems with the Helmet Mounted Display have been resolved and the pilot can use any of the six cameras to look through the aircraft. The tail hook has been redesigned for the carrier version of the F-35. Most significant, in only a few months Pratt & Whitney came up with a temporary fix to the problem that caused a serious engine fire. As a result, both the Marine Corps and Air Force variants are back on track to meet their projected 2015 and 2016 initial operational capabilities, respectively.
Perhaps the problem is too many auditors, reviewers and assessors chasing too few programs. They have to find something if only to justify their own relevance. The medical community has been experiencing a crisis of its own when it comes to repetitive testing such as for breast and prostate cancer. It turns out that all the testing doesn’t improve survival rates. In fact, the number of false positives is significant, resulting in a lot of anxiety, unnecessary surgeries and even some deaths. It is not clear that the GAO and IG reports will do anything to improve the health of the F-35 program.
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