Acting Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall says it was “acquisition malpractice” to approve production of the years before the first flight of the single-engine stealthy fighter occurred.
“It should not have been done,” Kendall told an audience Feb. 6 hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But we did it.”
Then-procurement chief Kenneth Krieg approved the first lot of production in 2006. The contract for long-lead articles came in April 2006 for low-rate initial production Lot 1, and that aircraft rolled off of the production line in 2008.
At the time, program executives, including the incoming director of the program, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, argued that swift entry into production was of paramount importance to aggressively ramp up production numbers quickly, thereby attaining a low per-unit cost as quickly as possible.
Davis, now a three-star general, commands the Air Force’s Electronic Systems Center, which has oversight of such key programs as the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program and the next-generation space surveillance fence. He andexecutives also contended that the use of new modeling and design tools dramatically diminished the likelihood of major problems being discovered in flight testing that could prompt a costly redesign.
Kendall, who is the acting procurement czar awaiting Senate approval, takes issue with that view.
“What we are seeing is that the optimistic predictions when we started the production of the F-35—that we now have good enough design tools and good enough simulation and modeling that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding things in test—were wrong,” Kendall said. “We are finding problems in all three of the variants that are the types of things, historically in a state-of-the-art, next-generation fighter aircraft, you are going to find, where our design tools are not perfect.”
These include so-called structural hot spots on all three F-35 variants that have yet to be fully understood or addressed. Today, the program has achieved only 20% of its flight-test program, and Pentagon procurement officials have sharply reduced the purchase numbers in recent years to curtail the potential of discovering major problems in testing that would cause a redesign and retrofit of a growing fleet.
This problem, dubbed “concurrency,” is frustrating senior Pentagon leaders because of its unknown scope. During an interview last year with Aviation Week, JSF program executive Vice Adm. David Venlet said the real risk of encountering major concurrency cost is retired around 2015 if testing goes as planned.
Meanwhile, after contentious discussions last year, he and Lockheed Martin executives agreed to equally split the cost of any concurrency modifications for low-rate-initial-production Lot 5 aircraft. This was the first such arrangement in the program and sets the precedent for burden sharing moving forward.
Despite institutional frustration at the Pentagon over the concurrency problem, Kendall says, “We don’t, at this point, see anything that would preclude continuing production at a reasonable rate.”
Testing, however, is not without its hiccups. After a grounding of six F-35 test aircraft at Edwards AFB, Calif., owing to poorly packed ejection seat parachutes, the Joint Program Office (JPO) announced that AF-1 resumed flying Feb. 3.
The aircraft were grounded because personnel at seat-maker Martin Baker installed some parachutes backward. The “head-box assembly” for AF-1 was installed the morning of Feb. 3 and a crew flew later in the day, JPO spokesman Joe Dellavedova says.
Three more head-box assemblies were expected to be delivered over the weekend and are slated for installation. The test jets are the first slated to undergo the fix, with the nine training aircraft at Eglin AFB, Fla., next in line. Training operations there have not been affected as the Air Force has not yet given the nod to conduct those flights yet.