Pentagon Delays Beginning of Critical Combat Testing Phase for F-35 by 16 Months
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Photo: F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office’s Facebook

Pentagon Delays Beginning of Critical Combat Testing Phase for F-35 by 16 Months


ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – December 11, 2018

Last Thursday, Dec. 6, the F-35 program office put our a press-release on the official start of the formal F-35 Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E)

Starting this week and continuing through late summer 2019, the Air Force, Navy, and Marines will begin testing all three F-35 Air System variants (A/B/C) under realistic combat conditions to determine their suitability for combat, followed by a decision to begin full rate production at the end of 2019.

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office’s Facebook post reads: “Vice Adm. Mat Winter, F-35 PEO, said starting IOT&E is “the culmination of years of technical, programmatic and operational work and dedication from our joint government and industry team. I am extremely proud of our team’s commitment to testing excellence and dedication to providing our warfighter affordable, effective capabilities for mission success.”

All test events will be conducted at U.S. Military testing ranges and installations. Following the evaluation, the Department will have the required data to share with our partners and to inform our “Milestone C” acquisition decision, leading to formal entry into full rate production at the end of 2019.

IOT&E is the last legal hurdle an acquisition program must surmount before it can enter full-rate production. Per federal law, this process cannot begin until the director of operational test and evaluation approves in writing that the program has met all the necessary criteria to execute the agreed-upon testing program.

The F-35 is currently in low-rate initial production, during which time customers are buying fewer jets and Lockheed Martin is setting up the production line for maximum efficiency. While this is good for cranking out smaller batches of early production jets, limiting production means higher prices. If the F-35 passes IOT&E testing, the aircraft will pass the final hurdle to full rate production.

The Pentagon-mandated IOT&E tests will put several F-35s through their paces to determine if the plane is mature enough for mass production. The tests will cover the gamut of the F-35’s capabilities, from operating in cold weather to carrier operations and even simulated combat missions. The testing is designed to assure customers that the jet has overcome the many problems it’s faced over the past decade and is indeed ready for prime time.

Nevertheless, more than 340 F-35s are already operating from 15 US and allies bases around the globe, and the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin continue to work on resolving a list of problem and deficiencies that continue to plague the JSF program, many in the plane’s incredibly complex software.

The first time an F-35 crashed was on September 28, when a Marine JSF from training squadron Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) F-35B was lost during a regular training flight around 11:45 A.M. out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina.

The Marine Corps version is the most expensive of the three versions of the F-35, costing about $115.5 million in 2019. Ultimately, the Air Force intends to purchase 1,763 F-35As, the Marine Corps intends to buy 353 F-35Bs and the Navy plans to buy 340 F-35Cs designed for deployment on aircraft carriers, according to Stars and Stripes.

The F-35 program, the most expensive weapon in U.S. military history, has been marred by delays and cost overruns and other mechanical issues. Problems include a broken bracket that was blamed for an in-flight fire on a Marine F-35B in October 2016 at MCAS Beaufort, according to a Marine Corps investigation into the incident.

On 23 June 2014, an F-35A preparing to take off on a training flight at Eglin Air Force Base experienced a fire in the engine area. During the incident investigation, engine parts from the burned aircraft were discovered on the runway, indicating it was a substantial engine failure, Reuters reported.

In 2017, a F-35 stealth jet reportedly lost a panel while flying a routine training mission on Nov. 30 off the coast of the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Testers have also identified an issue with the arresting hook on the Air Force’s F-35A conventional takeoff variant. The F-35A, like other Air Force aircraft, is equipped with a single-use tailhook for emergency-landing situations when the pilot suspects a braking failure. Testing on the F-35A’s tailhook began in 2016. Testing engineers found that the arresting hook is causing damage to the aircraft due to “up-swing.”

On August 24, Robert Behler, the director of operational test and evaluation, delayed the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation saying that the program hadn’t met the necessary entry criteria to begin the crucial combat-testing phase.

Behler writes in the released memo, that operational testing cannot begin until the program updates versions of the F-35’s operating software, mission-data files, Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), and testing range infrastructure software.

While it is not clear from the memo which specific problems remain to be resolved, previous testing reports found “key technical deficiencies in the ability of the F-35 to employ the AIM-120 weapons” (the principle air-to-air missile) and an “uncharacterized bias toward long and right of the target” when pilots fire the aircraft’s cannon, resulting in them “consistently missing ground targets during strafe testing.”

The next version of the F-35’s operating software, Behler writes, should add to the aircraft’s capabilities to ensure it can perform several key combat missions including strategic attack, air interdiction, offensive counter air, and electronic attack. The aircraft’s Mission Data Loads are large files of maps, threat electronic signals, data on potential enemy weapons, as well as friendly systems to enable the F-35’s sensors to sort friend from foe. ALIS is the much-troubled maintenance and logistics network that combines embedded diagnostics functions, supply chain management, and maintenance guidance. Previous testing found that most ALIS functions work only with “a high level of manual effort by ALIS administrators and maintenance personnel.”

The Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) obtained a document showing how F-35 officials are recategorizing—rather than fixing—major design flaws to be able to claim they have completed the program’s development phase without having to pay overruns for badly needed fixes. Several of these flaws, like the lack of any means for a pilot to confirm a weapon’s target data before firing, and damage to the plane caused by the tailhook on the Air Force’s variant, have potentially serious implications for safety and combat effectiveness.

Because of all the risky, undeveloped technologies that fail to perform as promised and have been concurrently incorporated into the F-35’s design, the program never had enough capacity in these areas even at the outset of the current development phase. That and the 966 still-unresolved design flaws are the major reasons the program has fallen so many years behind schedule. It is unclear how program officials intend to address the mountain of deficiencies while also developing new, untested capabilities and keeping to their schedule to begin full-rate production in 2023. Their current solution, as the Deficiency Review Board meeting minutes show, is to wave them away with paper and pen.

“The fact that it will take a quarter-century to complete the F-35’s design is evidence of the disastrous price we have paid for the Pentagon’s decision to initiate concurrent development and production of yet another weapons system that deliberately incorporates multiple undeveloped, untested technologies. Recent history provides several examples of programs with huge schedule slippages, cost overruns, and technological failures, with the F-111, C-5, B-70, B-1, B-2, and F-22 programs,” Dan Grazier of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight wrote.

What happens if the F-35 fails the IOT&E tests? A failing grade will be humiliating for the Department of Defense, the F-35 program office and the jet’s many overseas customers, but won’t result in a cancellation of the entire program. There’s too many jobs on the line for that. Nor is there time to develop a new jet. If the F-35 fails, we’ll see even more money poured into fixing it, Popular Mechanic’s Kyle Mizokami said.

However, in its rush to cross the finish line, the program has made some decisions that are likely to affect aircraft performance and reliability and maintainability for years to come. Specifically, the program office plans to resolve a number of critical deficiencies after full-rate production. Resolving these deficiencies outside of the developmental program may contribute to additional concurrency costs, which also carries affordability implications.

Additionally, the program’s reliability and maintainability metrics inform the program on the probability of failures and how much time the aircraft will be in maintenance. It stands to reason that less-reliable aircraft require more maintenance and parts than planned and might result in the aircraft not being available for operations. If reliability targets are not met, the military services and the taxpayer will have to settle for aircraft that are less reliable, more costly, and take longer to maintain. Given that the program’s long-term affordability is already in question, ensuring the aircraft is reliable by each variant’s planned maturity is paramount.

Author: USA Really