March 21 (Bloomberg) -- Delays in testing critical software for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet are threatening to delay the Pentagon’s most expensive weapon and boost development costs, according to congressional investigators.
“Persistent software problems” have slowed testing to demonstrate the aircraft’s war-fighting, navigation, targeting and reconnaissance systems, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said.
The Marine Corps F-35 version, designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings, has a key milestone next year. While the Marines want the plane to be deemed ready for combat in mid-2015, tests on some of its software might not be be completed on time, and possibly 13 months late.
“Delays of this magnitude would mean that the Marine Corps will not likely have all of the capabilities it expects in July 2015,” according to a draft of a GAO report obtained by Bloomberg News. “The effects of these delays compound as they also put the timely delivery of Air Force and Navy initial operating capabilities at risk.”
The Air Force’s F-35 version is supposed to meet a similar deadline in 2016, and the Navy model in 2018. Italy and the U.K. are buying the Marine Corps model.
The F-35 program is estimated to cost $391.2 billion.
While Lockheed Martin officials haven’t yet seen the GAO report, they are “confident we will complete flight testing of the software required for Marine Corps initial operational capability this year,” Laura Siebert, a spokeswoman for the Bethesda, Maryland-based contractor, said in an e-mail statement.
The company plans to release the required software for the Marine version “no later than July 2015,” she said. “This software will enable the Marines to identify, target and engage the opposition.”
Since the program completed a major reorganization in March 2012, “acquisition cost and schedule estimates have remained relatively stable, and progress has been made in key areas,” the GAO said.
Lockheed Martin is improving its production processes and reduced problems with its pilot helmet, the Navy F-35’s tailhook, which enables the plane to land on aircraft carriers, and an automatic diagnostic system.
The company and the Pentagon program office also made progress in 2013 toward reducing the cost of the Navy and Air Force models, though not the Marine Corps version, the GAO said.
As of January, the military planned to have verified basic functions for 27 percent of the software intended to operate the Marine Corps version. Instead, it got to 13 percent, leaving a “significant amount of work to be done by October,” when testing was to be complete, the GAO said.
“At this point, we believe the most pressing issue is the effect software testing delays are likely to have on the capabilities” of the first aircraft each service declares ready for combat, the watchdog office said.
If the current schedule isn’t improved, the Marine Corps may “initially receive less capable aircraft than it expects,” according to the GAO draft report.
The Pentagon’s long-range budgets project the F-35 program will average $12.6 billion annually by 2018 and through 2037. That may be unaffordable because of current budget constraints, the GAO said.
At its peak, F-35 funding will be about $15 billion, so “annual funding of this magnitude clearly poses long-term affordability risks,” as “lower than expected reliability” risks keeping support cost estimates high, the agency said.
The projected price tag of $391.2 billion for an eventual fleet of 2,443 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy and Marines is 68 percent higher than the estimate in 2001, measured in current dollars.
The number of aircraft is 409 fewer than called for in the original program. The Pentagon is requesting $8 billion for 34 aircraft for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, compared with 29 that were approved in each of the last two years.
One of the program’s challenges will be meeting the Defense Department’s specific cost goals at the start of full-scale production in 2019.
The per-jet cost still require reductions of as much as $49 million, the report said.
A final version of the GAO report will be featured Wednesday at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 26 that’s set to include testimony from the GAO’s top F-35 official.
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