Winslow Wheeler, veteran Senate defense budget expert and now an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, penned the following commentary on what he thinks the Senate Armed Services Committee should really focus on when it holds a Thursday morning hearing on the Joint Strike Fighter. He wants to know why the Joint Estimating Team has not been invited to testify, among other things.
This Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Whether this event turns out to be an exercise in actual oversight (competent investigation) or just another opportunity for senators to give speeches and read off staff prepared questions in a huffy tone of voice (and for the Pentagon witnesses to utter bromides, unchallenged by oblivious posers), hinges -- I believe --on three matters:
First, why is the Joint Estimating Team (known as JET II) not invited to testify? It is they who have for two years running uncovered many of the continuing failures of the F-35 program, most recently finding $16.6 billion in additional costs and up to 30 months of delay just in the next five years. It is not just a question of hearing from the actual investigators; there is also the question of Under Secretary Ashton Carter's truncating the JET II's findings in less than half ($2.3 billion in extra costs and 13 months' delay) and his inference in his February 24 Acquisition Decision Memorandum (available to any requestor) that the JET II team even authored these changes in what he calls a "Revised JET II estimate." The JET II's presence, and their original briefing materials, at this hearing would not only give the committee the basis for much better informed questions, but were the JET II to testify Thursday, Under Secretary Carter and his co-witness, the newly installed Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, Christine Fox, would most assuredly be -- shall we say -- encouraged to give more complete and informative answers to questions.
GAO is just now finishing up on the final stages of a new report on the F-35. Their 2009 report was important and revealing. GAO testimony Thursday on their new findings is a second obvious component of competent oversight at this hearing - and an element that would also help examine the accuracy of the testimony of the Pentagon's top management at the hearing.
To delay either GAO or JET II testimony to a point in time disjointed from Under Secretary Carter's and Director Fox's testimony is to give Carter and Fox an implicit assurance that the Thursday hearing will be clear sailing for them.
Second, in his Acquisition Decision Memorandum, Under Secretary Carter made the statement "no fundamental technology or manufacturing problems were discovered" by his review of the F-35 program. It is a quite astonishing assertion. The problems are legion: test airplanes that can't complete a small fraction of their schedule, software years from completion, a completely inadequate flight test plan that will only probe 17 percent of F-35 performance characteristics, a manufacturing line that churns out incomplete, unflyable aircraft, raiding the assembly line for spare parts, serious questions about the F-35's ability to protect itself in air-to-air combat, failure to show even rudimentary characteristics for an effective close air support aircraft. These are just a few of the issues that come to mind. The manufacturing problems have been documented in Defense Contract Management Agency reports for years; find a summary of the more recent ones at http://www.cdi.org/friendlyversion/printversion.cfm?documentID=4588.
Will Carter retract his foolish statement, hide behind a careful parsing of the word "fundamental" in his silly assertion, or offer glib promises that his management will miraculously make all the elementary problems go away. The world wonders.
Third, the broader context of the F-35 program is a U.S. air component that is in serious decay. The air combat arms of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps have each grown smaller and older (and less ready to fight) and they have done so at now record highs in Pentagon spending. This trend has been worsening for decades. What is the DOD plan for this decay? Make it worse. That is inadvertently documented by a new "Aircraft Investment Plan, Fiscal Years (FY) 2011-2040" released last month by the Pentagon. It is a harsh assessment, but it is spectacularly incompetent. The arguments for saying so are laid out in a new article I co-authored with aircraft designer (among other things) Pierre Sprey. The article addresses the gigantic oversights of the study and the elements promoting decay of American air power. It appears in the new, April, issue of The American Conservative magazine. Find it at http://amconmag.com/article/2010/apr/01/00030/ and below:
The SASC hearing starts at "approximately" 10:30; see the lower half of the committee's announcement at http://armed-services.senate.gov/e_witnesslist.cfm?id=4383.
Winslow Wheeler's bio can be found here.