Watchdog Says Software Development Issues May Force F-35 Delay

Kyra Helwick/Defense Department

The Government Accountability Office found the Defense Department’s current modernization schedule “is not rooted in reality.”

The Defense Department is employing a version of the agile development methodology for software on the F-35 fighter jet program, but according to a government watchdog report, delays, defects and a lack of real-time data are contributing to a need to push back the Block 4 modernization schedule. 

A Government Accountability Office audit published last week found contractor Lockheed Martin is consistently failing to fully deliver on expected work when it comes to software. A recent software drop saw only 64% of planned work completed and only 69% of the planned functionality delivered on time, according to the report. 

Delays such as these have rendered the Block 4 modernization schedule—which GAO said “is not rooted in reality”—unachievable, according to GAO. That’s a diagnosis with which DOD concurred: The Pentagon in comments on a draft version of the report said the F-35 Joint Program Office expects to finish a new Block 4 schedule by the second quarter of this calendar year. Block 4 is currently expected to conclude in 2027. 

The report comes as frustration from lawmakers including House Armed Services Committee Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., is bubbling over. Smith called the discrepancy between what has been spent and the results of that spending “just painful.” The total cost of the F-35 program exceeds $1 trillion. 

DOD is using a process based on the agile software development methodology for Block 4, which it calls Continuous Capability Development and Delivery, or C2D2. Lockheed Martin is supposed to develop software in four increments leading to new drops every six months. 

But GAO found over the last two years more increments were added to the cycles and that these additional increments delayed delivery of capabilities. A third-party analysis also found the first increment of each batch does not always include all the new software capabilities expected. The delays mean contractors don’t have as much time to address defects as they should prior to fielding a new capability. Between December 2017 and September 2020, more than 650 software defects were found after delivery to the test aircraft. 

“Test pilots we met with explained that when the contractor did not deliver the first increment of the software drop planned to be delivered in April 2021, they lost crucial time to identify defects early in the development cycle, which contributed to the unplanned software increments and to some defects not being identified during testing,” the GAO audit reads. 

Upcoming software drops are also supposed to become more complex compared to previous capabilities, officials told GAO. And while the program office is working to add more metrics to allow for greater insight into software quality, GAO found the program office neither has access to automated tools to capture and track metrics in real time nor has it set performance targets for software despite DOD and GAO agile development guidance to do so. 

“We found that the program’s current access to software metrics data does not enable rapid or reliable assessments of the Block 4 software development effort, which hinders the program’s ability to conduct contractor oversight,” the audit reads. 

DOD concurred with all three of GAO’s recommendations: to adjust the schedule, to implement automated tools for tracking software development metrics, and to set software performance targets.