F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: DOD's Proposed Follow-on Modernization Acquisition Strategy Reflects an Incremental Approach Although Plans Are Not Yet Finalized
(Source: US Government Accountability Office; issued Aug 8, 2017)
The Department of Defense's (DOD) F-35 program office has made progress in defining its planned acquisition approach for follow-on modernization, known as Block 4. DOD plans to take an incremental approach to the Block 4 acquisition. This approach is consistent with DOD policy and acquisition best practices and thus facilitates transparency and oversight. GAO has reported in the past that DOD policy and acquisition best practices support an incremental, knowledge-based approach to system development and procurement.

However, DOD officials note that, due to budget uncertainties and ongoing changes in the F-35 program's leadership, program officials are now reassessing key cost, schedule and capability aspects of this incremental approach.

GAO's assessment of DOD's most recent Block 4 schedule (from August 2016) indicates that DOD was planning to request funding in February 2018 to purchase the first aircraft with the initial increment of Block 4 capabilities before those capabilities are developed and tested.

Going forward, an area of potential concern is the planned concurrency in DOD's Block 4 procurement plan. Program officials told us that the concurrency issue is being considered as part of their reassessment of Block 4.

Why GAO Did This Study

Due to evolving threats and changing warfighting environments, DOD has begun planning and funding the development of new capabilities for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, known as F-35 follow-on modernization. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 included a provision for the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to congressional defense committees outlining the Acquisition Program Baseline for Block 4. The NDAA further required that GAO review DOD's report. Although that report was due to Congress on March 31, 2017, DOD sent a letter to Congress in April 2017 stating that the report was delayed and it intends to submit the report in August 2017.

Even though the report is not yet available, GAO conducted this review to provide Congress information on the current status of DOD's Block 4 development and procurement plans. Specifically, this report describes DOD's planned approach to F-35 Block 4 modernization as of May 2017 and assesses the extent to which that approach is likely to reflect key elements of a knowledge-based acquisition strategy.

To assess DOD's planned approach for Block 4, GAO met with F-35 program officials to obtain an understanding and context for the methodology the department used for its approach. GAO also requested and reviewed supporting documentation related to Block 4, such as cost, schedule, and capabilities planning documents. GAO then compared DOD's planned acquisition approach for Block 4 with DOD acquisition policy and guidance as well as acquisition best practices to determine the extent to which DOD's Block 4 approach is knowledge-based.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is not making any recommendations at this time but will reassess this issue once DOD's F-35 Block 4 baseline report is issued and brief the congressional defense committees on our findings.

Click here for the full report (8 PDF pages) on the GAO website.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The key point in this report is that the F-35’s current data processor is operating at maximum capacity, and an updated processor with increased capacity is likely needed for the first increment of Block 4 to function as intended.
This processor is being developed as part of the Technology Refresh 3 package, but it may not be available until 2021, which poses a risk that the testing and delivery of the first increment of Block 4 capability may not be achievable as planned.


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