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Commentary

Can We Trust Under Secretary Carter's F-35 Predictions?


     
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Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter wrote in his Feb. 24 F-35 Program Restructure Acquisition Decision Memorandum (ADM) implying that the Joint Estimating Team (JET II) voluntarily complied with Carter’s revisions of its own recommendations: “A Revised JET II estimate was made presuming the program restructuring identified in [Carter’s] Review, and it forms the basis of the restructured schedule and budget. The Revised JET II estimate projects a 13-month slip where a 30-month slip was previously forecast.” (See page 2 of the ADM at http://www.dodbuzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Carter-F-35-REstructure-Memo.pdf.)

Based on what I had been hearing from well informed insiders about the JET II team and Under Secretary Carter, I was deeply skeptical that it was entirely accurate that the JET II team voluntarily rewrote its recommendations to conform with the results of Carter’s officially designated “Review.” And yet, I had no proof, especially not at the March 11 hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when Carter and his Director of Capabilities Assessment and Program Evaluation Christine Fox, and a representative of the JET II were all present. Had there been a questioner there able and willing to press Carter or Fox on this matter, a difference might have shown up, but alas, there was no such questioner.

The new GAO report on the F-35, “Joint Strike Fighter: Additional Costs and Delays Risk Not Meeting Warfighter Requirements on Time,” (Find it at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10382.pdf.) more than darkens my suspicions; in fact, it seems to confirm them. Page 10 of the report reads: “For the budget projection, cost estimators used the JET data through fiscal year 2015 and then applied current program office assumptions on manufacturing span times and expected learning curves to estimate total procurement funding requirements through completion of acquisition in 2035. A JET official said these program office assumptions were overly optimistic and that the JET analysis suggests a more moderate gain in learning over time as well as longer manufacturing span times and other assumptions.”

In other words, the Carter Review concocted a hybrid of the JET II’s first five years of analysis with that of the program office’s more optimistic version of things. Put another way, Carter cooked the numbers by diluting the JET II’s analysis with the system advocates’ predictions. That a member of the JET II team had the character to so inform GAO with a more distinguished description also reveals a difference between the JET II and Carter that the press is yet to discuss. That the usually bureaucratically cautious GAO (where I worked for nine years) revealed the dispute­ is also significant.

GAO also reveals that the JET II was not alone in viewing Carter’s Review as limp wristed: “NAVAIR’s October 2009 cost assessment estimated total procurement costs of $314 billion—$41 billion more than the 2011 budget submission, an increase of about 15 percent with a corresponding increase in unit costs [above Carter’s assertions].” (See page 10.)

The revealing GAO report also states that cost increases above those estimated by Carter should be expected (See page 19.), as well as more delays. (See page 22.)

Thus, Carter is contradicted not only by the JET II (which he tried to glue to his own hip) but also NAVAIR’s and GAO’s analysis.

If we know anything from the history of the Joint Strike Fighter Program, we can safely predict that DOD’s predictions are pure hokum, if not worse, and that we should listen closely to the independent voices inside DOD (in this case JET II and NAVAIR), especially when they are confirmed by outside independents, such as GAO. We can also safely conclude that Under Secretary Carter’s blandishments are every bit as reliable as his predecessors’.


Winslow T. Wheeler is Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, Former Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, and author of the Independent Policy Report, Congress, the Defense Budget, and Pork: A Snout-to-Tail Description of Congress’ Foremost Concern in National Security Legislation.






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