The Government Accountability Office was recently asked to examine the history of modernization programs of many of its fighter and attack aircraft and make comparisons with the F-22A modernization program, which will develop and retrofit new capabilities onto a complex stealth aircraft through 2023.
Programs examined and compared included the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18.
GAO officials stated in their report, that they had reviewed official service history documents and current and historical program documents; analyzed program cost, schedule, performance, and quantity data; and spoke with current and former Air Force, Navy, and contractor officials.
The F-22A began as a single-step program and did not anticipate the need for future modernization, while the other legacy programs each began with the expectation that their aircraft would be incrementally upgraded over time.
Nearly all of the F-22A modernization upgrades would have to be retrofitted onto fielded aircraft while, legacy modernization programs integrated their upgrades into new production aircraft, had fewer complexities, and were thus less costly.
Originally designed to counter air threats posed by the former Soviet Union, the post-Cold War era spurred efforts to add new missions and capabilities to the F-22A, including improved air-to-air and robust air-to-ground attack and capabilities.
“The F-22A modernization began in reaction to a major shift in the aircraft’s basic mission, which required the development of new capabilities that had not been planned for as part of the initial development program,” said GAO officials. “In contrast, the legacy modernization programs all made planned incremental improvements to existing mission capabilities.”
Although the legacy and F-22A programs began modernizing at the same general points in time, the F-22A modernization program resources, primary technology and funding needed to meet the new requirements had not been fully developed or identified.
This means that many of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptors may not get their long-promised capability upgrades until well into their service lives. Calculations show that this would mean that the improvements would not be completed until the aircraft reaches nearly 20 percent of their 8,000-hour service life.
Each of the programs, including the F-22A, initially managed and funded modernization as a continuation of its baseline program, so modernization costs and funding were not clearly identified in selected acquisition reports or budget documents.
As a result, the cost, schedule and performance projections for the F-22A modernization program were not well founded.
According to a separate GAO report to the Subcommittee on Defense, Committee on Appropriations and the U.S. Senate, the program now faces cost, technical and sustainment risks.
The GAO found that the total projected cost of the F-22A modernization program and related reliability and maintainability improvements more than doubled since the program started – from $5.4 billion to $11.7 billion-and the schedule for delivering full capabilities slipped seven years, from 2010 to 2017.
The Air Force and Navy have modernized many of their fighter and attack aircraft over the past several decades and given this historical experience, there are definitely concerns about the mounting cost of F-22A modernization.
The Air Force currently plans to spend about $11.7 billion to modernize and improve the reliability of the F-22A. About $9.7 billion will be spent on specific modernization increments and related support costs, and nearly $2 billion will be used to improve the reliability of the F-22A and make structural repairs.
The GAO report also said the content, scope and phasing of planned capabilities has also shifted over time with changes in requirements, priorities and annual funding decisions. Visibility and oversight of the program’s cost and schedule is hampered by a management structure that does not track and account for the full cost of specific capability increments. Substantial infrastructure costs for labs, testing, management, and other activities directly support modernization but are not charged to its projects.
The GAO found that the testing of new capabilities to ensure operational effectiveness and suitability would be ongoing. Results to date have been satisfactory but development and operational testing of the largest and most challenging sets of capabilities have not yet begun.
Going forward, major challenges will be developing, integrating and testing new hardware and software to counter emerging future threats. Other risks are associated with greater reliance on laboratory ground tests and relocating an F-22A lab needed to conduct software testing.
While modernization is under way, the Air Force has undertaken parallel efforts to improve F-22A reliability and maintainability to ensure life-cycle sustainment of the fleet is affordable and to justify future modernization investments. But the fleet has not been able to meet a key reliability requirement, now changed, and operating and support costs are much greater than earlier estimated.
In 2003, the Air Force established the F-22A modernization program to develop and insert new capabilities in four increments.
The GAO recommended that the Defense Department evaluate capabilities to determine if future F-22A modernization efforts meeting DOD policy and statutory requirements should be established as separate major acquisition programs.
According to David G. Ahern, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Strategic and Tactical Systems, DOD concurred with the recommendation.
The Air Force will therefore move forward with plans to manage its fourth modernization increment as a separate major acquisition program.
The GAO conducted the performance audit from June 2011 to April 2012 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Michael J. Sullivan, Director Acquisition and Sourcing Management, also noted in his report that, “The lessons learned on the maintenance of the stealthy F-22A may also have implications for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.”
Lockheed Martin announced May 2 that the 195th and final F-22 Raptor was delivered to U.S. Air Force leadership in a ceremony at the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics site in Marietta, Ga. With this delivery, the Air Force now possesses the world’s only 5th generation stealth fighter aircraft fleet in the world.
“There is no longer any nation that wishes us ill, or any adversary who wishes us harm, that has any doubt that their actions will have consequences – that they will be held to account and that our response will be undeterred,” said Robert J. Stevens, Lockheed Martin’s chairman and CEO. “The very existence of this airplane – your airplane – has altered the strategic landscape forever.”
The Air Force’s F-22A Raptor is the only operational fifth-generation tactical aircraft, incorporating a low observable (stealth) and highly maneuverable airframe, advanced integrated avionics, and a supercruise engine capable of sustained supersonic flight.