The new defense bill provides money for 79 F-35s with Pratt & Whitney engines. Lockheed Martin photo
The F35A
The F35A Lockheed Martin photo

Washington – Federal investigators Monday detailed a number of problems with Pratt & Whitney’s F135 engine program for the F-35 fighter jet and urged the Pentagon to be a better watchdog of the program.

They also said existing and expected problems with the F-35, including it’s engine, might make the Pentagon’s purchasing schedule “unaffordable.” The F-35 is the nation’s most expensive weapons program.

Monday’s report, released by the Pentagon’s inspector general, was highly critical of the Pentagon’s management of the engine program. The F-35 Joint Program Office, the report said, was lax in its oversight and “did not establish F135 program quality goals and objectives that were mutually agreed upon by Pratt & Whitney for current contracts.”

The report identified 61 violations of regulations or defense department policies regarding quality control, worker safety and other issues.

The report also criticized Pratt & Whitney for its choice and management of suppliers and said the company “did not show improvement in quality assurance and process capability.”

Pratt & Whitney said the audit was completed in November of 2014 and the company has since “worked aggressively to address the DoD IG’s findings and (take) corrective actions.”

The company also said the inspector general focused on contractual adherence, not engine quality.

“None of these findings has, or would have, affected the operational fleet, safety or mission capability of the aircraft or the F135 engine,” Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said in a statement.

Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office said, “The report is factually accurate; however, the JPO does not agree with all of the findings and recommendations outlined in the report.”

In another recent report, however, the Government Accountability Office, did take issue with the engine’s performance.

The GAO said “program data show that the reliability of the engine is very poor (less than half of where it should be) and has limited the program’s progress toward its overall reliability targets.”

“The engine contractor, Pratt & Whitney, has identified a number of design changes that it believes will help improve engine reliability, but some of those changes have not yet been implemented,” the report continues.

The GAO report cited an engine fire last year that temporarily grounded the F-35 fleet. Pratt & Whitney has come up with a temporary solution to the problem that caused the engine fire, but not a permanent fix yet.

“Pratt & Whitney disagrees with the conclusions drawn relative to engine reliability by the GAO,” Bates said.

He said the report “incorrectly assessed engine reliability, as it did not account for new designs that have been validated and are being incorporated into production and fleet engines.”

The GAO also said the cost of making fixes to the F-35 engine and other problems with the Joint Strike Fighter means the Pentagon’s plans to purchase an increasing number of these airplanes “may not be affordable.”

The military plans to spend $391.1 billion for a fleet of 2,443 planes from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. and Pratt & Whitney, the sole producer of the F-35’s engine.

The GAO said that with about 40 percent of developmental testing on the F-35 remaining, “additional unanticipated changes are likely as much of that testing will be very challenging.”

“At the same time, DOD plans to steeply increase its procurement funding requests over the next five years and projects that it will need between $14 and $15 billion annually for nearly a decade,” the report said. “It is unlikely that the program will be able to receive and sustain such a high and unprecedented level of funding over this extended period, especially with other significant fiscal demands weighing on the nation.”

The critical reports on the F-35, and its engine, come as Congress weighs the Pentagon’s request for $1.2 billion to buy engines next year, up from $873 million this year.

Last week, a House Armed Services Committee panel working on the defense authorization bill included language that requires a “federally-funded research and development center” to conduct a study of the F-35 engine program and to submit a report on it by March 16, 2016. The study would include an assessment of the reliability, growth, and cost-reduction efforts of the program and an investigation of June’s engine fire.

“Congress plays an important oversight role, and we welcome an unbiased, objective review of the F135 program,” Bates said

He also said, “The F135 is already exceeding its reliability specification requirements and is meeting reliability benchmarks expected in 2020.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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