PARIS --- Pratt & Whitney waited three months to publicly admit it had suspended deliveries of the engine that powers the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and only went public on Aug. 30, the day after Bloomberg News broke the story.
Pratt also waited until Aug. 29 to file suit against the supplier it accuses of having supplied sub-standard materials, which it says it detected in late May. Pratt’s statement also says it “is conducting a rigorous analysis of the material in question,” so it is not clear on what grounds it states “we are no longer accepting parts made from material provided by this company.”
Whatever the details, it is stunning to think that this delivery freeze has been kept secret for over three months, given this engine’s long history of problems, and the entire F-35 program’s troubled history of under-performance, cost over-runs and long delays.
Furthermore, it is of huge concern that it was covered up by government agencies named in Pratt’s statement: Defense Criminal Investigation Services, US Air Force Office of Special Investigations and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the agencies they report to.
In an Aug 29 story, Defense News quoted US Air Force chief of staff, Lt Gen Walsh, as saying that Pratt & Whitney was working on a fix to whatever malfunction had caused the June 23 fire, but apparently forgot to mention Pratt’s suspension of engine deliveries.
Nor was the problem mentioned by Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, head of the Joint Program Office which runs the F-35 effort, and other government and industry officials who extensively briefed the media at the July 4 christening ceremony, at the RIAT air show and at the Farnborough air show.
Bogdan’s silence on this issue is likely to cost him whatever credibility he had gained by publicly criticizing the performance of Lockheed and Pratt & Whitney when he took over the program.
The fact that the story finally leaked over the Labor Day holiday adds insult to injury.
This is one of the major holiday week-ends in the US, when public attention is at ebb – so leaking the story at that time clearly implies that maintaining secrecy was a concerted effort by the government agencies and industry involved to minimize public reaction.
And, of course, the reasons for the June 23 fire have still not been made public even though, as mentioned above, Pratt is working on a fix.
So the story now is as much about a cover-up as it is about management and supply chain lapses and failures at the two firms making the F-35 fighter and its engine.
Why cover up?
Avoiding more bad news over the summer was crucial to the program, as the F-35 was due to make its international début in July. Two F-34Bs were scheduled to appear at the christening of a Royal Navy aircraft carrier on July 4 in Scotland, and at two English air shows, where the British government was due to sign an order for 14 more aircraft.
All of the above paints a pretty dismal picture of the credibility of the F-35 program and of the ease with which it manipulates the media. But the media is not alone is having been misled:
-- Witnesses during June-July hearings by four congressional panels on the FY2015 budget also neglected to mention the engine delivery freeze. The cover-up is a slap in the face of these panels, whose reaction this week will be indicative of how seriously they take their oversight role.
-- Was the British government, the biggest foreign partner in the F-35 program, informed of this latest setback, and did it join the cover-up? Was this the reason it didn’t sign the 14-aircraft order, as expected?
-- Was the Italian government, the second-largest foreign partner, informed, and were the six other foreign partners who have contributed to funding development? Were they kept deliberately in the dark, or did they join the cover-up?
In other words, is this an international conspiracy to protect the F-35 from parliamentary and public scrutiny, or is it simply a domestic cover-up in the US?
The cover-up also raises shareholder information issues for Lockheed Martin and United Technologies, Pratt’s corporate parent. Lockheed, for example, makes no mention of the engine freeze in its July 22 statement on second quarter results, although the F-35 program is so crucial to its future that it is specifically mentioned in its “Forward Looking Statement” regulatory warning.
Caveat Aviator: F-35 pilots should be very, very worried.
P&W spokesman Matthew Bates told Bloomberg that “the company replaced all the suspect engine parts in its inventory….but determined that the metal in 147 F-35 engines already delivered didn’t pose a flight-safety risk.”
Is it plausible that replacement of “suspect” parts was necessary only on undelivered engines, while all 147 engines already delivered were safe to fly, given that the suspect parts for all engines came from the same supplier?
After an F-22 pilot was killed by hypoxia, and the USAF denied and dissembled, two pilots went public and said they would no longer fly F-22s because they deemed it was unsafe to fly, which finally led the air force to order a new oxygen system.
Pilots flying F-35s powered by a single engine that catches fire, and which has parts that could be made from “suspect” titanium, would do well to consider their personal safety. Caveat Aviator, indeed.