U.S. watchdog finds quality violations in Pratt work on F-35 engine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon’s internal watchdog on Monday said it found 61 violations of quality management rules and policies during an inspection of Pratt & Whitney’s work on the F-35 fighter jet engine and warned the problems could lead to further cost increases and schedule delays on the biggest U.S. arms program.

More than half of the problems were deemed major and occurred at Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies Corp, versus Pentagon agencies that oversee the program, according to the report by the Defense Department’s inspector general’s office. A major incident is one likely to result in the failure of the quality management system.

The Defense Department buys the F135 engines under a separate contract with Pratt, while Lockheed Martin Corp builds the fighter jet’s airframe.

The U.S. military plans to spend $391 billion to develop and buy 2,457 F-35 warplanes and the needed engines in coming years.

Pratt and the Pentagon are still correcting a design problem with the high-performance F135 engine that grounded the F-35 fleet last year, but that was not due to manufacturing issues. However, quality issues have grounded the fleet in the past.

Earlier this month, the congressional Government Accountability Office also faulted the reliability of the F135 engine.

Pratt and the Pentagon’s F-35 program office said they had taken aggressive steps to address the findings of the inspector general’s two-week review in November. Pratt stressed the audit focused on the company’s quality management process and said none of the problems affected the performance of the engines, or the safety and capability of the aircraft.

The company said it had implemented plans to correct 60 percent of the issues raised and would complete all but one by July. The final issue would be addressed by year-end, it said.

The inspector general’s office also faulted the Pentagon’s F-35 joint program office and Defense Contract Management Agency for insufficient oversight, citing systemic problems in the areas of program management oversight, safety compliance, risk and supplier management, and software quality management.

The Pentagon’s F-35 office said it disagreed with three of six findings in the report and warned that increasing oversight of software and other items would add time and costs.

Given the large number of issues identified, the report said the F-35 joint program office should expect growing rates of quality problems, which may affect engine performance, schedule, and cost.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn