A consumer buying a car views the quality of the product simply: Does it work as promised and will it last? But the Pentagon inspector general's (IG) recent review of the Defense Department's most costly procurement program reveals that the military's definition of “quality” in its weapon systems is far more nuanced and tricky to manage.

The audit cites 363 quality-control issues with hardware on the F-35 fighter program, raising questions about what the Defense Department is getting for its $124 million per jet five years into production, and why delivering a completely defect-free product is more difficult than it seems.

The foremost quality problems arising before the government accepts delivery of aircraft include incorrect hardware installations (such as loose nuts, hardware stacked improperly and safety wires installed backwards); missing hardware (such as bolts, brackets and clamps); and cracked or chafed tubes and hoses, according to Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Laura Seibert.

The Sept. 30 report, “Quality Assurance Assessment of the F-35 Lightning II Program,” is the latest complaint of shoddy management by both the government overseers of the nearly $400 billion fighter program and prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

Since the Pentagon signed the Joint Strike Fighter development deal in 2001, it has been criticized for allowing Lockheed too much control in the process. This led to a series of problems that demanded rework, including an overweight F-35B model, design shortcomings (such as a faulty bulkhead) and, as production began, parts shortages and component durability issues.

But the IG's latest findings specifically focus on quality assurance and conformance to standards in the production program. Auditors collected data in 2012, while the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) was focused on pressuring Lockheed to assume more risk in delivering the aircraft on cost targets, reducing the per-unit price and addressing concerns that the total ownership cost was excessive. Though they clearly require attention, the IG's findings are, in a sense, a sign of progress. Twelve years into the contract, the project is finally maturing to the extent that auditors are looking at production, which is expected to run well into the 2020s.

However, the review is based on a tightly controlled definition of the word “quality.” In Pentagon contracting parlance, “quality” refers largely to whether a part conforms to specifications and standards. The catch is that a part can conform to standards but not do the job it was intended to do, as with the faulty bulkhead that developed a crack in a B-model jet. In this case, the part was up to quality standards but the spec fell short. Ultimately, rework was required.

The IG found that “the F-35 program did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical quality management-system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software,” the report says.

The auditors studied quality assurance and conformance to standards at Lockheed Martin, as well as key suppliers: Northrop Grumman, the center fuselage builder; BAE Systems, aft fuselage producer, L-3 Communications, panoramic cockpit display system manufacturer; Honeywell, Onboard Oxygen Generation System maker; and United Technologies Corp., landing gear provider. The IG intended to review the F135 engine built by Pratt & Whitney, but cuts from sequestration forced that effort to be scrapped, says a JPO official. Rear Adm. Randolph Mahr, deputy F-35 program manager, says none of the items are critical to safety of flight.

Part of the IG's work was to assess manufacturers' abilities to comply with standards, such as the AS9100 standard used by the aerospace industry.

Mahr notes that “early on” in the program, there were quality deficiencies on aircraft being fielded. Now, however, he says, “Lockheed Martin is taking positive steps to fix that.”

“The quality of this program is as good or better than legacy platforms,” says Eric Banyan, Lockheed Martin vice president of program management for the F-35. He explains that quality is an “element of pride and reputation” for the company. One measure for this is “scrap and rework,” or the amount of time spent redoing items on the aircraft to correct deficiencies.

About 13% of total hours are spent on F-35 scrap and rework at Unit 100, fewer than on the F-22 at Unit 100, Banyan says. He projects that with the 600th F-35, the program will reach the 6% scrap-and-rework milestone achieved by the F-16 program at Unit 2,500.

One goal of the IG's review was to better align the oversight of the JPO and the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA). The IG will conduct such reviews of various programs, but the F-35 came first because it is the largest Pentagon acquisition program.

The JPO was unable to ensure that Lockheed and its primary subcontractors were applying “rigor to design, manufacturing and quality-assurance processes,” the IG finds. Likewise, the JPO was not flowing down critical safety items and ensuring that their own officials, as well as those from Lockheed Martin, communicated technical and quality-assurance requirements throughout the supply chain. The DCMA is also to blame for not properly managing quality control, the IG reports.

The review was welcomed by program leaders at the Pentagon, Mahr says. “We didn't wait to work the findings,” he notes. Seventy-eight percent of the items are already resolved or are being worked, according to JPO officials. Mahr adds that language is updated in each production contract in compliance with changes to standards.

The JPO did take issue with one of the IG's findings, however. “The Joint Program Office stated that it does not have the resources to perform process proofing of all critical processes nor has the responsibility or resources to perform requirement flow-down verification throughout the F-35 supply chain,” the report says.

The IG says this job falls squarely within the JPO's area of responsibility. “It is the Joint Program Office's responsibility to ensure contractual compliance to prevent nonconformances,” the report states. Roughly 2,600 government workers are assigned to the program; 800 are on the testing team and another 1,800 are helping to manage the program from various locations.

Orlando Carvalho, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics vice president, established a quality transformation council to infuse a mind-set of improved quality into his workers and those at suppliers, Banyan says. In concert, he kicked off a Global Quality Council with the top 10 suppliers for all of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics' suppliers.

Banyan notes that the company is sharpening its focus not only on quality itself, but also on its cost.

Mahr says the program office is updating its memorandum of agreement with DCMA to clarify oversight responsibilities for the F-35.

Quality assurance has become more complicated for the fleet as it grows. Early on, aircraft were only being delivered to Eglin AFB, Fla., for training, but more bases are now receiving operational aircraft. The goal is to reduce squadron acceptance to weeks; it has taken months in the past, notes Mahr.

The IG's audit, while in-depth, is far from comprehensive and does not lead to a guarantee that aircraft will perform as required.

A high-cycle fatigue problem that came to light with the low-pressure turbine during engine testing in 2007-08 was technically not a quality problem, Mahr says. In that case, Pratt & Whitney's equipment conformed with the specification, but the spec was found to be wrong. Ultimately, officials had to change the quality-acceptance criteria.

Likewise, the audit would not have caught the delivery of Martin Baker ejection seats with parachutes loaded backwards, as that supplier was not in the review. The seats made it to the operational fleet, so aircraft were grounded while the seats were sent back to Martin Baker for parachute reinstallation.

Finally, the auditors did not look into software work, which F-35 Program Executive Officer USAF Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan has said is the riskiest area for this program.

Read the inspector general's full report at: ow.ly/pqTXt