Federal report skeptical of F-35 timeline

    A Navy F-35C, a Marine Corps F-35B, and an Air Force F-35A Lightning II participate in a training sortie together May 21, near Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. All three variants of the fifth generation multirole stealth fighter are hosted at Eglin by the 33rd Fighter Wing. The wing's F-35 Integrated Training Center at Eglin surpassed 5,000 combined training sorties May 28, contributing more than a third of all sorties in the Department of Defense's F-35 program. The F-35 is designed with the stealth, electronic warfare, and multi-spectral fused sensor capabilities, which will increase lethality and survivability in a contested environment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Joely M. Santiago)

    The Government Accountability Office (GAO) wants the Department of Defense to wrap up developmental testing on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter before spending more money on the program.

    A report released Tuesday is skeptical of the Joint Strike Fighter program's timeline for completing developmental testing.

    The Joint Program Office (JPO) expects to wrap up testing in October. The GAO believes it won't be finished until May, 2018. An extra seven months would push the program more than one billion dollars over budget and delay the Navy's initial operational capability -- which is basically its readiness for combat.

    The Marines declared combat readiness of its variant in 2015, the Air Force in 2016. The Navy anticipates reaching initial operational capability in 2019. None of the fighters have seen combat at this point. Eleven Air Force bases in the U.S. are flying F-35s, with the primary training center located at Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County.

    The F-35 -- also known as the Lightning II -- has been in development since 2001. The idea was to develop an advanced fighter that could be used by the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as foreign allies. The F-35A takes off and lands from traditional runways; it's the variant that will be most used by the Air Force. The Marines will use the F-35B, which offers short take-off and vertical landing options. The F-35C is designed for the Navy's carrier operations. The initial plan projected a cost of $233 billion for development, testing, and production of 2,866 fighters by 2012. By 2012, full-rate production had been pushed back to 2019, the number of planes lowered to 2,457, and the total cost raised to above $379 billion.

    Now, that cost could rise even more.

    According to the GAO report, the F-35 program office is getting ahead of itself. The JPO wants to issue a request for proposals for what they call "Block 4" software before tests on "Block 3F" software is complete. The report says funding and completing Block 3F development should take priority over the next upgrade. The JPO is also expected to ask for $650 million to order parts in bulk. The GAO says that's a bad idea, when testing is not complete.

    The Joint Program Office disagrees with the GAO's recommendation that the cost and timeline for testing be reassessed. The office says testing is on track to wrap up in February 2018.

    The JPO also disagrees with holding off on the Block 4 request for proposals. The office says waiting for Block 3F software testing to end before putting out the RFP for Block 4 would significantly delay the program and put pilots at risk.

    The GAO's final recommendation is for the Joint Program Office to submit a report on required purchases including all the details -- and the benefits -- of buying in bulk. The JPO says it agrees in part with the recommendation. In a statement provided to WEAR, the JPO said the strategy will save about $2 billion on the next 440 jets produced. The office plans to brief Congress on the details, as requested.

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