The first F-35A rolled off the assembly line in December of 2006, and eleven years later, program officials still maintain the baseline model is in its “developmental” phase.
The most optimistic estimates show the it needs another five months to be completed, according to the Pentagon. GAO conducted its own analysis, however, and reached a conclusion differing from that of the Defense Department. The GAO thinks a five-month estimate is bunk, “based on historical F-35 flight test data,” the report said, “developmental testing could take an additional 12 months.”
The differing forecasts present huge financial implications. “A delay of five months will contribute to a total increase of $532 million to complete development,” GAO said. The extended delay forecasted by GAO “will likely contribute to an increase of more than $1.7 billion” in more costs.
Testing delays for the Block 3F software system ought to be finished before the Pentagon conducts “significant new investments” in the joint strike fighter. The Pentagon disagrees with GAO, and has already begun soliciting contracts for the Block 4 program. “Until Block 3F testing is complete, DOD will not have the knowledge it needs to present a sound business case for Block 4,” the agency said.
The GAO estimates development testing for Block 3F to wrap up in May 2018, while the F-35 program office estimates the program will be done in October of this year.
The F-35 program office “does not fully agree will all of their conclusions and, in a few instances, statements are made without context or qualifying information,” spokesman Joe DellaVedova told Bloomberg. Of course, the Pentagon believes the program will not require another $1 billion or more to complete. The remaining cost “to complete the F-35’s $55 billion development program is estimated to be $2.3 billion,” which is included in the program’s current budget, he said.
The F-35 program may be the priciest topic on which nobody within the US government agrees. The acting weapons buyer for the Pentagon said that the current development testing for Block 3F “remains on track to complete in February 2018,” which is entirely at odds with the GAO and Pentagon estimated mentioned above.
Why does all this matter? The F-35 is by far “the most expensive and ambitious acquisition program” since the DOD was incepted. “Acquisition costs alone are estimated nearly $400 billion” and in five years, $14 billion will be devoted to F-35 acquisition costs annually, the report said.
Based on these cost estimates, the Pentagon “would likely face affordability challenges as the F-35 program competes with other large acquisition programs, including the B-21 Bomber, KC-46A tanker, and Ohio Class submarine replacement,” GAO noted.