GAO Stands by Its F-35 Report

GAO Stands by Its F-35 Report

The Government Accountability Office disagrees with Winslow Wheeler’s characterization, in his March 22 article "Error Report," of our March 2013 report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. We stand by our work — past and present. The concluding observations from the report provide the full context and reasoning for our position on the F-35 as it stands today, including the clear rationale for not making new recommendations. We would point your readers to that and not the selected excerpts from Mr. Wheeler that fail to provide the full context.

We make the point that, while overall the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is now moving in the right direction, it still has tremendous challenges ahead. The program must fully validate design and operational performance, plus make the system affordable so that the United States and partners can acquire new capabilities in the quantity needed, and can then sustain the force over its life cycle. Recent restructuring actions have improved the F-35’s prospects for success, albeit at greater costs and further delays. DOD and the contractor now need to demonstrate that the F-35 program can effectively perform against cost and schedule targets in the new baseline and deliver on promises.

The article mischaracterizes the report regarding what we considered in citing the progress made by the overall program and, specifically, the helmet-mounted display system. Regarding overall progress, the article cites a few management objectives but ignores the other, numerous quantitative indicators of development and production progress that we considered, including reduced labor hours, improved efficiency rates, positive supplier quality indicators, reduced parts shortages, increased factory throughput, accelerated deliveries, and increased flight testing and verification. Our assessment of the helmet-mounted display’s progress is based on the fact that DOD is pursuing a dual-design approach, essentially creating an alternative to the display’s original design. Pursuing an alternative is an appropriate way to reduce risk. While we include the views of program and contractor officials, our assessment of progress is based on the design approach itself. As we make clear in the concluding observations, progress does not mean that the program is out of the woods.

The process GAO follows to ensure its reports are accurate is part of the agency’s rigorous quality assurance framework. Among other quality assurance steps, this framework does call for a discussion of facts with affected parties before a draft report is sent for official comments. Such discussions are formal, contrary to the article, and are intended to ensure that the facts are not in dispute. They do not compromise GAO’s independence. GAO’s quality assurance processes have been assessed on three separate occasions by teams of international auditors — most recently in 2010 — and in each case those processes were found to be effective and reliable.