WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday questioned the quality of production on the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, citing a “potentially serious issue” with its electronic warfare capability.
“The committee is ... concerned about production quality and whether it is sufficient to ensure the delivery of JSF aircraft to the U.S. and its allies at an affordable price,” the committee said in a report accompanying its fiscal 2013 defense budget bill.
Italy has already scaled back its planned orders for the new, radar-evading warplane and several other countries are slowing their orders, citing budgetary pressures. Japan has warned it could cancel its order if the cost per plane rises from what it was offered.
Lockheed is building the new radar-evading fighters for the U.S. military and eight foreign countries helping to fund its development, Britain, Norway, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey, Australia and Italy. Japan and Israel have also ordered the fighters for their militaries.
Questions over the quality of production of the F-35 will compound the mounting woes of the $396 billion Pentagon program, which has already been restructured three times in recent years to extend the development phase and slow production.
The committee said it was troubled by the average rate of scrap, rework and repair at Lockheed’s Fort Worth, Texas facility from 2009 through the first two months of 2012, but gave no details.
“Inattention to production quality” had led to the discovery of a potentially serious issue with an aperture on the plane that was critical to its electronic warfare capability, the report said. The full extent of the problem was not known, but it underscored the need for the Pentagon and Lockheed to “rigorously manage production quality,” it said.
Lockheed has hired about 200 temporary workers to keep production of the F-35 and F-16 fighters on track at the Fort Worth plant, where 3,300 union workers are in the seventh week of a strike over pension and health care benefits.
Lockheed says the new workers are being carefully trained, but union officials have questioned whether the quality of production — already an issue — would be maintained by workers with less experience on the complex weapons system.
No new talks have been scheduled.
The Pentagon projects the cost to develop and buy 2,443 planes for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will be around $396 billion.
The committee’s report reiterated long-standing congressional concerns that Lockheed is already producing planes even as testing continues, which can lead to costly retrofits.
The most recent restructuring added 33 months and $7.9 billion to the development plan.
The report also cited concern about lack of progress on software development for the new aircraft, noting that “the potential cascading effect of failures to deliver software ... can be particularly pernicious.”
No comment was immediately available from the Pentagon’s F-35 program office or Lockheed about the Senate report.
The Senate report said it was hopeful that the Pentagon’s new acquisition approach to the program — which more closely ties orders for future planes to contractor performance — would help address the software and production quality issues.
But it said the approach required “a very clear, specific and realistically achievable set of performance criteria” that made it clear to Lockheed how its performance would be assessed.
The committee directed the Pentagon to provide these criteria to the congressional defense committees so they could be assessed before they were implemented.
Lockheed and the Pentagon have been negotiating for over five months about a contract for a fifth batch of 32 planes, but the two sides are still far apart, a source familiar with the issue told Reuters last week.
Last week, Lockheed Chief Executive Bob Stevens said his company was working hard to drive down overheads, but the Pentagon’s demands for ever more cost data were adding to the very overhead costs the government wants to see lowered.
Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Michael Perry