The US Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) spent most of Thursday (Washington time) grilling Pentagon officials on the faltering JSF program as it hurtles towards a probable Nunn-McCurdy cost breach in April, which will likely result in all expenditure being frozen while the program is substantially restructured.
Of key interest to SASC members was the growing cost of the program, with Pentagon acquisition head Ashton Carter telling the committee that the cost per aircraft had grown by more than 50 per cent since 2002, and by 17 per cent since 2007, bringing the program right up against the Nunn-McCurdy trigger threshold.
The Nunn-McCurdy process, named after the law’s two sponsoring legislators, would see Pentagon and program officials brought before Congress to not only justify the program’s existence in light of alternative capabilities, but to also assure them that costs and schedule are under control moving forward. Cancellation is unlikely given that there are no alternatives to the JSF unless enhanced versions of current generation fighters are deemed acceptable, or the USAF can wait until planned unmanned systems mature. But costs and schedules are another thing altogether, particularly with ongoing blowouts and slips to even the most recently ‘re-baselined’ figures.
According to a report from Michael Sullivan of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which was presented to the SASC, the cost of an F-35A in 2002 was projected to be about US$50m (A$55m), but that blew out to US$69m (A$75m) in 2007 and is now at more than US$80m (A$87m) in 2002 dollars, or more than US$112m (A$122m) in today’s dollars based on projected production numbers averaged out over the life of the program.
“The taxpayers are a little tired of this,” ranking Republican committee member, Senator John McCain said. “I can’t say that I can blame them.”
Upon being asked by another committee member on whose fault the cost blowouts are, Carter said “there is responsibility on both the government’s side and the contractor’s side,” adding that previous program head MAJ GEN Heinz had already been removed and the position had been elevated to a three-star level job.
Carter also said, “The JSF program has fallen short on performance over the past several years,” and that he expected the USAF to notify Congress of the Nunn-McCurdy break “within days”, but added that he was confident steps taken by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February and by himself in early March had pre-empted much of the program restructuring that may be required.
But the GAO wasn’t so confident, with Michael Sullivan saying, “We have consistently reported on the elevated risk of poor program outcomes from the substantial overlap of development, test, and production activities and our concerns about the government investing in large numbers of production aircraft before variant designs are proven and performance verified in testing.”
The program “will require exceptional levels of funding for a sustained period through 2034, competing against other defense and non-defense priorities for the federal discretionary dollar,” he added.
Christine Fox, the director for Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) said “the Department plans to complete certification review of the restructured JSF program by June, 2010,” adding that, “the cost is really a tremendous problem.”
Also of concern to the committee was the late delivery of test aircraft to the flight test program. “As of today, three of 12 flight test aircraft operate at one of the government test centres,” Michael Gilmore, director for operational test and evaluation said in written testimony, also testifying that software delivery dates “have recently been extended by more than one year each compared to the plans existing at this time last year.” The test program was supposed to have 10 development aircraft flying by now, with another two due to enter the program in the next few months.
In response to these latest developments, Australian Defence Minister John Faulkner released a statement that “confirmed that the government remains confident the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the right choice for the Australian Defence Force’s next generation air combat capability, and will enable the Australian Defence Force to maintain its strategic air combat capability advantage out to 2030.”
Senator Faulkner noted, “The JSF Program Office advises that no significant implications are expected for the JSF Partner countries as a result of the Nunn-McCurdy breach due to the restructuring action which has already been taken in the US.
“The adoption of a more conservative budgeting approach by the US Department of Defense for the JSF Program – particularly for early aircraft where cost risk is highest – is a sound management approach for such a large and complex project.
“Australian Defence planning has always adopted a cautious approach to JSF cost estimates by factoring in significant amounts of contingency funds to deal with cost risks.”