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New Study Fuels Debate Over F-35 Safety

Taylor Dobbs

The Department of Defense released a report this week criticizing the F-35 program’s quality assurance systems, noting that the program does not have legally required checks on “Critical Safety Items” involved in F-35 manufacturing.

The report, issued by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense, examined the quality-assurance practices in place at Lockheed Martin and five “major subcontractors” involved in the fighter jet’s manufacture.

“The F-35 Program did not sufficiently implement … technical and quality management system requirements to prevent the fielding of nonconforming hardware and software,” the report said.

The report gave new ammunition to opponents fighting the plan to base up to 24 of the next generation fighters in Chittenden County. Much of the initial debate over the plane revolved around the noise created by the plane and its impact on public health and property values.

But in recent months, opponents have been emphasizing the safety issue.  James Marc Leas, a Burlington lawyer and outspoken F-35 opponent, said the risks of crashes with the new technology are too high for the plane to be based in a heavily populated area. 

The report is highly critical of the Pentagon’s oversight of contractors working on the F-35. At one point, it says: “Delivered  aircraft may pose an increased safety of flight risk due to the lack of critical process control." 

Leas says the report shows that the F-35 poses an unacceptable risk.

“I’m sure that they’ve identified some of the problems,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee that they’ve even identified most of the problems or certainly all of the problems.”

Among the problems raised by the Inspector General is the lack of a “CSI program” or “Critical Safety Items” program. Such programs were mandated by 2003 legislation and are in place to make sure manufacturers and contracting agencies pay special attention to critical safety items. A critical safety item is defined in the report as “a part, assembly, or support equipment whose failure could cause loss of life, permanent disability or major injury, loss of a system, or significant equipment damage.”

The report found that the F-35 Joint Program Office has no CSI program in place for the F-35.

“The CSI findings documented at Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systems indicate that JPO had not established a CSI program for the F-35 Program,” the report states.

While the report found 363 findings and resulted in 343 “corrective action recommendations,” (CARs) the F-35 Joint Program Office said most of those issues are already taken care of.

In a statement, F-35 Joint Program Office spokesman Joe DellaVedova praised the thoroughness and accuracy of the report.

“As of Sept. 30, 2013, 269 of the 343 CARs have been resolved (78%), with the remaining 74 still in work with Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) in development, or approved but not fully implemented,” the statement read.

Among those not yet implemented is the CSI program. The F-35 program began years before the 2003 legislation requiring CSI programs and is still not operating a CSI program.

"It's all good stuff,” DellaVedova said. “If the [F-35] program started today, we would have a full [CSI program.]"

At a press conference Thursday addressing safety concerns relating to the Vermont Air National Guard and the F-35, the commander of the Vermont ANG 158th Fighter Wing said the critical inspector general’s report did not concern him.

Colonel David Baczewski said that all of the problems listed in the report would be solved before the F-35 would be based in Vermont.

Baczewski noted that the F-35 program is concurrently testing the aircraft and doing “training and fielding.”

“It's an accelerated program,” he said. “But well before they ever go out into the operational field, all of those items are mandatory to be corrected."

DellaVedova at the F-35 Joint Program Office, however, said that’s not the case.

Asked if the F-35 program would have a CSI program in place before any potential Vermont basing, he said he wasn’t sure.

"I don't want to go that far. I don't know -- that could be out of all the findings, maybe that's just the one, hey we agree to disagree on."

The Inspector General recommendations, he said, are not mandates. In a letter from Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan to the Inspector General’s office, Bogdan said he report would serve only as a guideline.

“I view your assessment as a valuable tool to independently evaluate the areas for improvement within the F-35 Program, with the ultimate goal of producing a quality, timely, and cost-effective weapon system for the United States and our allies,” he wrote.

DellaVedova said that whatever Joint Program Office does with the Inspector General’s recommendations, the offices share the same goal of a safe, high-quality fighter jet.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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