GAO analyst critical of Joint Strike Fighter program's cost overruns, delays

By Dana Hedgpeth - Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, March 11, 2010; 2:20 PM

A congressional auditor said Thursday that the Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's most expensive weapons program, "continues to struggle with increased costs and slowed progress," which leads to "substantial risk" that the defense contractor will not be able to build the jet on time or deliver as many aircraft as expected.

Michael Sullivan, the U.S. Government Accountability Office's top analyst on Lockheed Martin's jet fighter, also known as the F-35 Lightning II, said in his prepared remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the cost of the program has increased $46 billion over the 2007 baseline of $276.5 billion and that development is 2 1/2 years behind schedule.

The United States plans to develop and buy about 2,400 of the fighter jets, worth an estimated $323 billion, for the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Navy. Eight other countries -- Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway -- have plans to buy the jets, as well.

Sullivan said the program's "negative outcomes" were "foreseeable as events have unfolded over several years." The program, which has been underway at least nine years, has suffered delays and cost overruns because of manufacturing inefficiencies, parts problems, slow delivery of test aircraft and delays in flight tests, according to Sullivan's testimony.

Defense Department officials tried to defend the program before congressional leaders, noting that they are in the process of restructuring the program.

Maj. Gen. Clyde D. Moore II, who is the acting executive officer in charge of the F-35's development, said in his prepared remarks that the program has "experienced challenges and disappointments in the transition from development to production."

Thursday's hearing comes a week after Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said that the top-of-the-line fighter jets will probably cost more than originally expected and be delayed by two years. Donley said the planes would probably not be ready for the Air Force until 2015. The jets were expected to be available in 2013.

The recent troubles in the fighter jet program show that there may be more severe issues than Pentagon officials had anticipated, industry analysts said.

If other countries become nervous about troubles with the plane and back out of buying some of the planes, that could drive up the price of the aircraft. The cost to build the plane is now expected to be $65 million to $70 million apiece -- not counting the research and development cost, according to defense industry analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax.

The concerns over the F-35 come as the Obama administration is asking Congress to provide $11.4 billion overall for the Joint Strike Fighter program next year, including $8.4 billion to buy 43 planes.


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