The Complex

U.S. Stealth Jets Have 363 Production Flaws, Inspectors Say

The Pentagon's inspector general has found 363 problems in the way Lockheed Martin and five other defense contractors build the Pentagon's primary fighter jet of the 21st century. Hundreds of production errors "could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost" of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to an IG report published today.

The flaws largely consist of the companies' failure to follow safety and quality control techniques while building the stealth fighter jets. Contractors failed to make sure that manufacturing spaces were clear of harmful debris or that glues used to hold parts of the jets together had not passed their expiration dates. Instructions telling workers how to install parts on the airplane were incorrect.

These production flaws likely contributed to each jet in a recent batch of F-35s needing an average of 859 "quality action requests" before they were ready for delivery, according to the IG. This means that about 13 percent of all work done on a brand-new F-35 is "scrap, rework and repair" work to fix problems built into the planes, according the 126-page report.

"This was a wake-up call that we had to be more rigorous," Eric Branyan, Lockheed's F-35 vice president of program management, told Reuters. Branyan said the company plans to get the rework rate down to about 6 percent.

The report also knocks the Pentagon's F-35 program office and the Defense Contract Management Agency for "ineffective" oversight of Lockheed and the five other contractors that make the fighter jets.

"Although it would be unrealistic to expect first production to be issue free," the contractors need to improve their "quality assurance" techniques, how they communicate design requirements to subcontractors, and their discipline in adhering to manufacturing processes "if the Government is to attain lower program costs," reads the report.

This echoes what Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon's man in charge of the $400 billion fighter jet program, said a year ago when he was the No. 2 military official involved in the program.

In September 2012, Bogdan told Killer Apps that the F-35 effort must fall back on the fundamentals of good weapons buying if it were to have a shot at success.

"That means know where every penny is, know where every person on the program is and what they're doing, and know where every pencil is. What I mean by pencil is, all the equipment -- you've got to have that kind of discipline." Bogdan reiterated that last sentence when asked how the F-35 program will be run going forward.

"There is no more money or no more time in the development of this program," said Bogdan. "We will not go back and ask for anymore."

If the program is run with discipline, transparency, accountability, and a focus on how to make the airplane affordable in the long term, "we've got a shot at getting this done. We've got a shot -- it will not be easy, though," Bogdan added.

The Defense Department plans to buy a total of 2,443 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps over the coming decades. The F-35 will replace thousands of the U.S. military's Cold War-era fighters and ground-attack jets such as F-16 Vipers, A-10 Warthogs, AV-8B Harriers, and F/A-18 Hornets. Eleven other countries also plan to fly the stealth jets. Total cost over the program's estimated 50 years: $1.5 trillion.

The F-35 has been plagued by development problems leading to hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of redesigns. These redesigns in turn have led to years' worth of production delays for the airplane and a massive reduction in the planned number of jets the Pentagon plans to buy. The latest figures indicate that the military will only have 365 JSFs by 2017 instead of the 1,591 it originally planned on having by then.

Pentagon and Lockheed officials have blamed the F-35's production woes on the fact that Lockheed is trying to design, test, and build a supersonic stealth fighter all at once.

To be fair, it looks like Bogdan and Lockheed are making progress on these fronts. The Pentagon says it has already addressed 269 out of the 363 problem "findings" identified by in the IG report.

Just a couple of weeks ago Bogdan told reporters that Lockheed is on track to deliver combat-ready jets to the Marines by late 2015 and the Air Force by late 2016. But that was before this latest report.

Lockheed Martin

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