Watchdog: Accountability

Inspector general faults Lockheed for 'catch it later' attitude toward F-35 problems

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Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,Michal Conger,Inspectors General,Military Budget,Accountability,Government Contractors

Defense Department officials, Lockheed Martin and a long list of subcontractors have failed to exercise proper oversight over construction of the F-35 fighter jet, the Pentagon's most expensive program, according to a new report by the DOD inspector general.

As lead contractor, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics bore the brunt of the IG's blame for lack of quality assurance.

"On average, at final assembly each aircraft has 200+ corrective actions requiring rework or repair. The DoD IG team’s overall conclusion is that LMA’s Fort Worth, Texas, quality management system and the integrity of the F-35 product are jeopardized by a lack of attention to detail, inadequate process discipline, and a 'we will catch it later' culture," the IG wrote in a "notice of concern" letter in April 2012.

The DOD's Joint Program Office, which runs the F-35 program, didn't have enough oversight over Lockheed and its subcontractors or ensure they were following DOD quality management rules, the IG said. All told, the IG found 719 issues with the program.

"The F-35 Program did not sufficiently implement or flow down technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software. This could adversely affect aircraft performance, reliability, maintainability, and ultimately program cost," the IG report said.

The same lack of control applied to several of Lockheed's subcontractors, including BAE Systems, Honeywell Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, L-3 Display Systems and United Technologies Corporation. The contractors didn't apply "rigor to design, manufacturing, and quality assurance processes," the IG said. This included problems with document and equipment controls, not following established procedures, and insufficient risk management.

"Lockheed and some of the major subcontractors are doing very sloppy work," said Winslow Wheeler, the director of the Project on Government Oversight's Straus Military Reform Project.

"A huge defense program is being run without self-control by contractors or external control by the Defense Department, and that's a pretty damning conclusion."

The IG's only positive comment was reserved for Northrop Grumman, which proactively addressed issues as they arose, according to the report. The IG's willingness to point out the positive suggests it is more "neutral and unpolitical" than the Government Accountability Office, which has released 25 reports on the F-35 program in the last five years and missed many of these issues, according to Wheeler, who worked at the GAO for almost a decade in the '80s and '90s.

Lockheed quickly released a statement on Monday detailing the recommendations it has implemented since the IG notified the DOD and contractors of its findings in a classified report in December 2012.

"This 2012 DoD IG report is based on data that’s more than 16 months old and majority of the Corrective Action Requests0 [CARs] identified have been closed," a Lockheed spokeswoman told the Washington Examiner in an email.

DOD and contractors have implemented 78 percent of the IG's recommendations, and the rest are expected to be completed by April 2014, she said.

The Pentagon gave similar assurances that none of the findings were news and it was actively addressing problems with the program.

"That's the standard response we would always get when I worked at GAO when DOD didn't like our findings," Wheeler told the Examiner. "It's not they who get to say that; it's the auditors and evaluators."

Robbin Laird, a global defense analyst and co-founder of the website Second Line of Defense, said the report inaccurately made the F-35 program appear headed for failure. In reality, while the program isn't perfect, the F-35 has the best defense companies in the world building it, a global coalition investing in it and decades of technology and success built into it.

"It's not going to fail," he said.

Laird, who said he had spoken with many pilots and military officials working on the F-35, blamed the damning report on inspectors' unfamiliarity with the aircraft and its technology.

"The people writing this know nothing about air power or this generation of aircraft," he said.

The Joint Program Office agreed with the DOD IG's findings regarding Lockheed and its subcontractors, but disagreed about its own responsibilities.

JPO told the IG it lacks the resources for certain oversight activities, and that contractors are responsible for following government inspection and process rules and ensuring subcontractors follow the same rules.

Read the full report here.

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