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Lockheed is delivering F-35s late—but the Pentagon is also buying them too quickly, GAO says

The Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II supersonic aircraft on the amphibious assault ship USS America. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Lockheed Martin has delivered more than one-quarter of F-35 stealth fighters late over the past five years, the Government Accountability Office revealed in a new report that also dinged the Pentagon for ordering hundreds of jets before planned technology is ready.

GAO warns that hundreds of existing jets—including those on the assembly line and others still not under construction—will eventually face costly bills to install new systems that won’t be ready for prime time until at least 2029. As well, problems with the jet’s simulators have delayed DOD plans to declare the plane ready for “full-rate production,” a bureaucratic milestone that signals the F-35 is stable and reliable.

“[T]he program is years behind schedule in completing development, while continuing to acquire up to 152 aircraft per year,” GAO wrote. “The more aircraft produced before operational testing is complete, the higher the risk of increased costs to retrofit those aircraft if issues are discovered.”

The report comes as the Pentagon and Lockheed negotiate a contract for hundreds of new F-35s:  Lots 15, 16, and 17 in the program’s parlance. Last week, Lockheed executives warned that rising inflation and pandemic supply chain disruptions could push the cost of the F-35 higher than expected.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged the problem of ordering jets before all the technology is ready, and are proposing to buy fewer than originally planned in the next few years, in part to reduce the need for costly updates down the road.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2023 budget request, sent to Congress last month, asks for 61 F-35 for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. That’s down from the 85 Congress approved for this year. And over the next five years, Pentagon budget documents show the U.S. plans to buy 110 fewer F-35s, Cowen & Company analyst Roman Schweizer wrote Monday in a note to investors.

The news of the delays arrives after a year of notable overseas commitments to buy the F-35. Canada, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland have all said they plan to buy the Lockheed jet over other American- and European-made fighter jets. The lower cost of the F-35 over its competitors was among the reasons cited by international buyers.

Monday’s report gives a glimpse into the toll the pandemic has taken on the program, but also how development of new technologies needed by each jet to address future threats has stumbled.

Of the 553 F-35s that Lockheed has built over the past five years, 155 were delivered late—some 28 percent. More than half of those tardy jets arrived before the pandemic.

It’s also taken the company longer than expected to build each jet. While pandemic-related supply-chain showdowns account for many of the recent delays, quality-control issues were cited for Pratt & Whitney delivering “nearly all engines … late,” GAO said.

Since 2018, the cost of developing the new tech for the F-35 jumped by $4.6 billion and is expected to take three years longer than originally planned, according to GAO. The development is now expected to cost more than $15 billion. In order for that new tech to work, “the program will need to modernize the current engine” to produce more power, GAO said. That means updating the existing engine or buying a new one.

Yet another hiccup was the U.S. decision to eject Turkey from the F-35 program after Ankara bought S-400 interceptors from Russia. That 2019 decision has required the program to find new suppliers for more than 1,000 F-35 parts. The Pentagon also had to certify the new suppliers, which takes time.

Several defense officials are scheduled to update lawmakers on the program’s progress at a congressional hearing later this week.

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