And This Mess Is So Big

Yes, this is a Dr. Seuss reference. And this is where you can buy my book, which you should, if you want to understand what the bleep is going on in defense acquisition.

“Oh, another negative GAO report on F-35”, yawn the usual suspects. Most of the media coverage of the report released on May 16 focused on what we already knew: the late delivery of the Tech Refresh 3 standard aircraft and the “truncated” non-combat-ready standard in which the aircraft will be delivered. Just to sum up, not much more than a year ago, in early 2023, the full TR-3 package was some eight months away from delivery; today, 18 months at best.

What do the current issues look like?

Problems with aircraft software supporting the radar and electronic warfare systems have been especially prevalent, with some test pilots reporting that they had to reboot their entire radar and electronic warfare systems mid-flight to get them back online.

Not good, but that’s not the big nasty problem. We knew as recounted here that the schedule for Block 4, the 80-plus-item list of upgrades and fixes linked to TR-3, was being “reimagined” and that there is no currently established schedule. The new report confirms that late deliveries of the new L3Harris Integrated Core Processor (ICP) have been a major problem, to the point where eight ICP packages are being rotated between production airplanes to keep the line moving.

But it’s not all L3Harris. As the GAO notes:

The program assessed technical aspects of the Block 4 capability delivery schedule and proposed 84 recommendations to improve it to the program executive officer, according to program officials. For example, recommendations included constructing additional hardware and software labs, extending the life of test aircraft, and implementing the use of new predictive planning tools.

Translated: even before the ICP situation blew up, the program had grossly underestimated the resources needed to carry out Block 4. And even with added resources, many items are being deferred.

The program office anticipates the scope of Block 4 will change as it becomes a major subprogram by removing capabilities that cannot be supported by the current F-35 engine and thermal management system... Program officials stated that the earliest the program expects to deliver post-Block 4 capabilities is 2029.

Moreover, the program has belatedly realized that, with the drawn-out development program, its fully instrumented test aircraft are becoming obsolete. Modifying production aircraft with instrumentation only goes so far to fil the gap.

Further, to address testing capacity limitations, the program is taking steps to increase testing capacity and expects new testing aircraft to be ready in 2029…. However, according to DOD testing officials, the current replacement plan will leave them without any available testing aircraft in 2028 and 2029.

If this doesn’t leave you with warm fuzzies about the program’s ability to establish a schedule for anything beyond deliveries of coffee and Pepto-Bismol, you’re in good company. But there will be a new era for sure when the upgraded engine and cooling system arrives? GAO has some news there too, because the JPO is still conducting studies as to what upgrades will be needed. But…

The results from all of the studies will not be available as they approach the award of the engine upgrade development contract in fall of 2024. Until these studies are complete, the program cannot fully define the requirements for related subsystems, such as PTMS.

Awarding a sole source contract before the requirements have been set usually works out well for only one party: the contractor. So it begins to be even more clear why RTX wanted to kill off the alternative solution to the thermal and growth problems, the XA100/101 adaptive engine. Just like P&W, the JPO, and the weasels of the Connecticut delegation had the GE/RR F136 whacked, many years ago.

But it’s just an engine upgrade, right? (Well, until it turns into a new engine. Anyone want to bet a nice bottle of Woodford Reserve against that happening? Didn’t think so.) These things are done all the time.

Sorry. There’s also the upgrade to the F-35’s unique secondary power and cooling system.

One of the five immature subcomponents has only reached technology readiness level (TRL) 4, meaning that it is immature because its components have only been validated in a laboratory environment.

Oh snap.

It’s becoming very clear that the entire Block 4 effort has been yet another turn in the spiral development of the F-35, another optimistically scheduled get-well program – “we can’t fix this now, we’ll add it to Block 4” – that not only fails to meet schedule, but draws attention away from the next problem. (The core argument in my book.) In this case, the next problem is that the thermal issues have been addressed about five years too late, and can’t be resolved with proven technology.

Recently, I’ve become aware of the IT world’s concept of “technical debt”. In software terms, that seems very applicable to F-35. Could be true for hardware too. In which case, the F-35 makes Enron look like Cousin Eddie’s Visa bill.

Pass the Pepto. Wait for the magic cat.

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