Officials in the F-35 Joint Program Office are making paper reclassifications of potentially life-threatening design flaws to make them appear less serious, likely in an attempt to prevent the $1.5 trillion program from blowing through another schedule deadline and budget cap.
The Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) obtained a document showing how F-35 officials are recategorizing—rather than fixing—major design flaws to be able to claim they have completed the program’s development phase without having to pay overruns for badly needed fixes. Several of these flaws, like the lack of any means for a pilot to confirm a weapon’s target data before firing, and damage to the plane caused by the tailhook on the Air Force’s variant, have potentially serious implications for safety and combat effectiveness.
POGO also obtained a copy of the Pentagon’s previously unreleased plan to control costs that shows the proposed savings may quickly be overwhelmed by the program’s rising costs.
In acquisition programs, a deficiency is a design flaw that affects the weapon system’s performance or safety. During the test and evaluation process, the testing personnel identify and categorize design deficiencies based on severity, breaking them down into Categories I and II, with degrees of priority within each category. Category I deficiencies “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.”
A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that, as of January 2018, the F-35 program still had 111 of these. Category II deficiencies “could impede or constrain successful mission accomplishment.” The program had 855 of these significant, though less catastrophic, design flaws.
The testing engineers evaluating the F-35 flight tests and identifying design flaws determine their severity based on the potential impact on safety and mission effectiveness and recommend a categorization level. The testing agencies, the services, and the F-35 program office then review these recommendations to arrive at agreed-upon categorization levels, which are then entered into the formal reporting system as deficiency reports.
Besides showing just how complex and incomplete the F-35’s development really is, 17 years in, the large number of deficiencies reported proves that many people have been conscientiously working toward improving the final engineering design to ensure it is safe and effective.
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.
There is reason to be concerned about the manner in which these deficiencies are being recategorized. A copy of the minutes from the F-35 Deficiency Review Board’s June 4, 2018 meeting, obtained by POGO, shows that the Board downgraded 19 serious (Category I) deficiencies to the less-serious Category II, including 10 with no plan in place to correct the known design flaws.
In a few cases, the Board followed the recommendations of the testing engineers to downgrade flaws. For the rest of the 19, however, the minutes show that the Board acted on its own to change deficiency statuses, with no apparent justification or evidence that the flaws were in fact not as serious as initially categorized.
In three instances, status changes were made “per direction from the F-35 DOE [Director of Engineering].” It should be noted that the director of engineering, Jay Fiebig, did not attend this meeting. Rather, the deputy director of engineering, Joe Krumenacker, served as chairman.
Without further documentation, it is unclear whether the F-35’s remaining 90 Category I deficiencies are being recategorized in the same manner.
Neither the Department of Defense nor Lockheed Martin responded to requests for comment on this investigation.
The minutes show that one deficiency the Board downgraded on June 4 involves the F-35’s emergency systems. Test teams found that the F-35’s Identification Friend or Foe transponder, which communicates with ground-control radar to confirm the aircraft’s identity, does not automatically send an emergency signal when the pilot ejects. It is supposed to automatically switch to emergency mode and transmit the international emergency transponder Mayday code 7700 that alerts air-traffic controllers of the emergency.
Were a pilot to eject without first manually switching the transponder to transmit the emergency signal—and an ejecting pilot will often have little time or presence of mind to do so—hours could pass before anyone knows they have had a problem, let alone that they ejected and crashed. The officials who identified this design problem gave it the highest severity rating, characterizing it as a Category I “High” deficiency. But the Deficiency Review Board knocked it down to a Category II “High” problem, without indicating a plan to correct it.
This is not how the development process is supposed to work.
Despite any proclamations from the Pentagon, the F-35 program’s development phase will not be complete in any meaningful sense this year, or for many years to come.
The F-35 Deficiency Review Board document reveals that F-35 Joint Program Office officials are not even attempting to deal with serious design flaws, just so they can claim to have finished this phase without busting the budget and the schedule yet again.
Instead, without admitting it, they will complete development work and fixes later, that is, within their newly devised, amorphous “modernization” phase, free of the restrictions and accountability imposed by a budget and milestone baseline.
Congress—instead of exercising its oversight authority to prevent the inevitable cost overruns, performance degradations and safety hazards caused by these bureaucratic machinations—has rewarded the program with unrequested billions of budget add-ons every year for the last three years running.
The men and women who will have to entrust their lives to these planes in combat, and the taxpayers footing the enormous bill, deserve better from their military leaders, their secretary of defense, and their Congress. (end of excerpt)
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