A government watchdog agency has "significant concern" about the affordability of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, at more than $390 billion the most costly weapons program in the Pentagon's history, and persistent computer software problems that could delay how soon the stealth jet is ready for combat.
The Government Accountability Office cited progress in lowering costs, but concluded in its most recent findings the hurdles ahead to bring the price tag lower to projections prior to full-rate production in 2019, and software glitches that could delay initial operational software in the Marine Corps by 13 months, which could have a spillover effect on versions for the Air Force and the Navy.
"These persistent delays put the program's development cost and schedule at risk," the GAO report said.
The F-35 is estimated to have an economic impact of $442 million in Ohio with 56 suppliers and 4,376 direct and indirect jobs, according to program officials.
The Department of Defense office overseeing the fifth-generation stealth fighter program says it has pushed cost-cutting efforts to drive down the price tag, and expects it will meet operational target dates for the Marine Corps next year, the Air Force in 2016, and the Navy in 2018. Eight nations have said they intend to purchase the F-35 fighter, dubbed the Lightning II.
Lockheed Martin, the aerospace manufacturer of the stealth jet, disagreed with the GAO's assessment of how long it will take to fix software delays, and said program costs have dropped $11.5 billion since 2011.
The Pentagon has restructured the F-35 program three times since 2001 and costs have soared 70 percent above initial estimates, the GAO reported. The F-35 may cost more than $1 trillion over the life of the aircraft, one estimate projected.
In the case of the F-35A, the Air Force version of the plane, the cost was $124.8 million per copy in 2013 with a goal to bring the purchase price down to $83.4 million by 2019.
The Air Force has banked heavily on the F-35: It plans to buy 1,763 of the aircraft to replace the F-16 fighter and the A-10 ground attack jet. The F-35 Lightning II Division office at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base has about 120 personnel who provide training and equipment to the program. The Joint Program Office, which oversees the fighter jet's development, is based Crystal City, Va.
The Navy and the Marine Corps plan to each buy 340 of the planes. The Pentagon will buy eight fewer planes than it had originally budgeted for this year.
Without changes, the GAO said, the Department of Defense could proceed with full-rate production in 2019 with less capable aircraft or alter the production rate.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, program executive officer, reported to a Senate Armed Services subcommittee this month affordability remains the No. 1 issue for the plane and the software is the biggest technical concern. Still, he noted the program had overcome several technological hurdles, from greater protection from lighting strikes to an improved ability to dump fuel. The program has set up a "war room" to drive costs down, he said.
"We must reduce costs or else this airplane will be unaffordable," said Joe DellaVedova, a Joint Program Office spokesman.
Each successive production lot is cheaper than the previous lot, said Michael Rein, a Lockheed spokesman.
In a statement, Bogdan said he was "confident" the F-35's initial warfighting capability will be delivered to the Air Force and Marines on the dates scheduled. But the Navy could face a four-to six-month delay in software development.
"There is more risk to that delivery schedule because it is naturally dependent upon the successful delivery of the previous software releases," Bodgan said. "We are working relentlessly to reduce this risk by tracking software equipment daily and by fixing issues as we find them so the military services and our international partners will receive the F-35's full warfighting capability."
The Pentagon pursuit of concurrency, or testing the aircraft at the same time its rolling off the production line to enter the fleet, has hurt the program, critics say.
"We're still trying to recover from the fact that we rushed it into production," said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow with Center for American Progress. "We used to say fly it before you buy it."
Winslow T. Wheeler, a defense analyst with the Project On Government Oversight, said concurrency was a "disaster" and the latest price projections were unrealistic. "That's not going to happen, but that promise is essential to keep the program alive today."
The F-35 lags behind the range of the F-16, doesn't have the weapons payload of the A-10 and has high operational costs, Wheeler said. "We're still years away from a fully combat capable F-35," he said.
Rein defended the cost effectiveness of concurrency and the performance of the jet.
"If we didn't do concurrency, we would basically build about 15 aircraft, flight test them four to six years, then try to start up the production line and suppliers again," a costly expense, he said.
The company also says the stealthy F-35 is six times more effective in air-to-air combat and surveillance and eight times more effective in the air-to-ground role than legacy fighters.
"The F-35 is a flying computer and with its sensors and radars it's able to fire, shoot and take down it enemy before it even knows it there," Rein said.