A new report released by the independent watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight (POGO) alleges that the defense contractor responsible for the development and production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter downgraded no fewer than 19 critical issues plaguing the aircraft as they approached the September 15 deadline for the aircraft’s initial testing and evaluation to be complete.
Issues identified with the aircraft are categorized based on the level of threat they pose to the aircraft and to mission accomplishment. Category 1 issues are considered the most pressing, described by the Pentagon as issues that “may cause death, severe injury, or severe occupational illness; may cause loss or major damage to a weapon system; critically restricts the combat readiness capabilities of the using organization, or result in a production line stoppage.” According to internal documents obtained by POGO, 19 problems with the aircraft that have been listed as “Category 1” were recently downgraded to the less severe “Category 2” despite having no plans in place to address or correct the problems. Category 2 deficiencies are still considered serious, but only represent a threat to mission accomplishment, rather than to the pilot and aircraft’s safety. As of January of this year, the F-35 still had 111 Category 1 deficiencies and a further 855 Category 2 issues that needed to be addressed.
While POGO acknowledges that many aspects of the F-35 program have been legitimately in pursuit of improving the airframes effectiveness and survivability, they claim that Lockheed’s decision to sweet these 19 critical failures under the rug is indicative of other motives at play.
“With the revelation that officials made paperwork fixes to make these serious deficiencies appear acceptable, it seems that much of that work is being ignored in the name of political expediency and protecting F-35 funding.” The report states.
Some of the issues that will now go unaddressed as the F-35 approaches its final testing deadline include one system that pilots use to confirm targeting data before firing that was supposed to reduce the chances of friendly fire incidents as the F-35 absorbs the role of close air support operations from the aging A-10. Another is believed to lead to structural damage on the aircraft in the Air Force variant of the platform. Another issue stops the aircraft from engaging the emergency transponder when the pilot ejects, meaning unless the pilot has the presence of mind to do so manually as he ejects, it could be hours before friendly forces are aware of his situation. By downgrading these issues from Category 1, Lockheed can continue ramping up production before resolving these issues, under the assumption that solutions will be established at a later time and then refit into existing F-35s.
That approach of building the planes first and then getting “the bugs out” later is, in large part, responsible for the massive cost overruns already associated with the F-35 program. Lockheed Martin and Department of Defense chose to pursue a practice of building the planes first, then testing them. As a result, just about half of all F-35s that have already been delivered to the U.S. military are considered non-operational pending extensive (and expensive) refits. Worse still, because the operating costs of the aircraft are also so high, the Air Force has already announced that it may need to reduce its order of F-35s by as much as half in order to offset the expense. With pennies being pinched simply to keep the operational aircraft in the sky, it seems fiscally irresponsible to assume funding will be there for a series of expensive refits to address the critical issues that have already been identified in the aircraft.
While there have been cases of testing engineers recommending that a Category 1 deficiency be downgraded to Category 2 for practical reasons, the 19 stipulated in the POGO report were downgraded by a panel without any discussion with engineers specific to the downgrade. Ten of those were downgraded despite there being no plan in development to resolve them whatsoever, and three were downgraded “per direction from the F-35 Director of Engineering,” Jay Fiebig, though he did not personally even attend the meeting that enacted the downgrades.
Thus far, neither the F-35 program offices or Lockheed Martin have issued a statement regarding the POGO report.