Inspector General on the JSF
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 5)

Just as Lockheed Martin (LM) seemed to be cruising relatively smoothly with its Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program – notably passing the 10,000-hour mark in flight hours, the standup of a US Navy F-35C squadron, and the commencement of construction of the first Royal Australian Air Force variant – fresh turbulence has been kicked up in the United States by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

Mandated to provide independent oversight of Department of Defense (DoD) programs, the OIG targeted the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) as well as Lockheed Martin Aeronautics in Texas, and its major subcontractors. The latter include three key U.S. players: Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, L-3 Display Systems and United Technologies Aerospace Systems, which respectively integrate the central fuselage and manufacture the panoramic cockpit display and the landing gear. Two others are in the UK: BAE Systems (the aft fuselage integrator), and Honeywell Aerospace (manufactures oxygen generators).

While the 2012-2013 investigation found no fewer than 719 “issues” with the F-35 program, central and most potentially damaging was that the Inspector General concluded that the JPO “did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software.” The OIG pointed out that this could affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and – ultimately – the cost of an aircraft promoted by the DoD from the outset of the program more than a decade ago as an “affordable next-generation strike fighter.”

The IOG said that the “root” of nearly half of its findings was a “lack of adherence to […] processes and procedures or insufficient detail in documentation.” It also said that the JPO had failed to ensure that the companies were rigorous with design, manufacturing and quality assurance programs, and that quality assurance oversight by the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) was inadequate – mainly because the JPO had not given the DCMA enough information about the F-35 program.

October 2013 – The U.S. Navy and the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB, Florida, officially reconstituted the highly decorated VFA-101 Grim Reapers Squadron during ceremonies held on the Emerald Coast. VFA-101 will prepare pilots and sailors to fly and maintain the Navy’s newest aircraft – the F-35C Lightning II carrier variant – safely at sea. The USN’s F-35C Initial Operating Capability is scheduled for 2019.

Among other things, the OIG recommended that the Joint Program Office:

  • ensure Lockheed Martin approval of, and government concurrence in, all design and material review board changes and variances;
  • modify its contracts to include a quality escape clause to ensure there is no payment for material which doesn’t conform to requirements;
  • implement a DoD-compliant critical safety item program;
  • assess the impacts and risks to all ­delivered aircraft for critical safety item deficiencies;
  • perform technical and quality assurance requirement flow down and verification throughout F-35 supply chain.
  • establish an independent quality assurance body authorized to enforce standards; and
  • revise the DCMA memorandum of agreement to include explicit quality assurance oversight requirements.

The Joint Program Office acknowledged most of the recommendations, but said that it has neither the resources to handle all the critical processes it manages nor the responsibility or resources to verify the F-35 supply chain. The OIG flatly disagreed, saying that it was the JPO’s responsibility to ensure contractual compliance and to update the contract if the requirements are deficient.

Ken Pole is a Contributing Editor at FrontLine.
© FrontLine Magazines 2013