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“[Thinking] that we now had good enough design tools and good enough simulations and modeling that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding problems in test was wrong,” he said. “And now we’re paying the price for being wrong about that.”

A series of GAO reports have documented the “malpractice.” The watchdog agency notes a “high rate of design change” and $373 million in new costs just to “retrofit already produced aircraft to correct deficiencies discovered during testing.”

The Aspin effect

Gen. McPeak said that the real mistake occurred decades ago, as the Air Force basked in the success of Desert Storm.

The Air Force aimed to replace the F-16 Falcon — considered one of the most successful low-cost fighter productions ever — by designing a successor in its image: lightweight, technologically advanced, with flexibility to adjust to new threats.

But then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin overruled the Air Force, and decreed that the next generation of multi-role fighter jets would be “joint” — one plane for three services — to cut costs.

“We did what we were told,” Gen. McPeak said, adding that , 20 years later, the Aspin decision has had the opposite effect.

Trying to build three versions of the same aircraft has required adding layers of different features to meet the demands of each service. Development and production has been overseen by a succession of different program managers from the three services, each with their own tweaks for the final product.

“Aeronautic engineering is still somewhat witchcraft, and you don’t fix problems, you just move them somewhere structurally,” Gen. McPeak said. “When you are trying to meet the requirements of three different groups, it’s just going to be more difficult, more expensive.”

Gen. McPeak remembers fondly the 1970s and the rise of the Falcon.

“We chose as a cheap airplane. El cheapo,” he said. “It turned out to be surprisingly good. It turned out to do everything we ever expected plus a lot.

“The Air Force version of the F-35 will never be surprisingly good. It will be good. Of course, it’s been plagued by cost increases and capability loss. In my judgment it will always be a disappointing aircraft,” the general said.

Limited cockpit visibility

The latest flak directed at the F-35 comes from pilots themselves as they learn to fly the F-35 Lightning.

In a new test report to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, pilots complain of a limited cockpit visibility that would get them shot down. (Gen. Merrill McPeak told The Times that the F-16 Hornet has never been shot down.)

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