The Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) recently released a scathing assessment of the F-35 program as part of his annual report. Buried inside 48 pages of highly technical language is a gripping story of mismanagement, delayed tests, serious safety issues, a software nightmare, and maintenance problems crippling half the fleet at any given time.
The report makes clear just how far the F-35 program still has to go in the development process. Some of the technical challenges facing the program will take years to correct, and as a result, the F-35’s operationally demonstrated suitability for combat will not be known until 2022 at the earliest.
While rumors that the program office would ask for a block buy of nearly 500 aircraft in the FY 2017 budget proposal did not pan out, officials have indicated they may make such a request next year. The DOT&E report clearly shows any such block commitments before 2022 are premature.
The report’s candor about the airplane’s problems is unique among the DoD’s other reports about the performance of the F-35. It only exists because Congress created an independent operational testing office in 1983 to report only to the Secretary of Defense and Congress. Without this office, significant F-35 problems might never be revealed until failure in actual combat. (Emphasis added—Ed.)
As damning as this report is, the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program Office quickly issued a statement disagreeing with the report’s emphasis—but acknowledging that every word of it is “factually accurate.”
Officials Continue Putting Off Key Tests Needed to Prove Combat Capability
The F-35 program is already years behind schedule: the first plan was to have the initial batch of the aircraft available for combat in 2010 and deployed in 2012. This report shows timelines slipping even more.
Crucial weapons delivery accuracy tests (WDA) serve as a good example. The weapons test events are important because rather than just testing to make sure an individual component functions properly, they test the entire kill chain, “the complete find-fix-identification (ID)-track-target-engage-assess-kill chain for air-to-air and air-to-ground mission success.” This means the tests will see if a pilot can locate and properly identify a target, hit it with the right weapon, and then tell if the target has been destroyed—just the sort of thing a pilot would have to do to be effective in combat.
The Joint Strike Fighter Operational Test Team (JOTT) identified 15 WDA tests for the Block 2B aircraft that the Marine Corps declared ready for combat last year. Twelve were completed, but 11 of them required the developmental testers to intervene—and in some cases weaken the test rules to “less challenging” ones—to help the plane do things like acquire and identify the target so it could succeed in firing a weapon. Given these heavy interventions, DOT&E found that in its current configuration the combat effectiveness of the Marine Corps’ F-35Bs “will depend in part on the degree to which the enemy’s capabilities exceed the constraints of these narrow scenarios.” So the F-35 will win only if the enemy decides not to exceed the F-35’s limited capabilities.
The remaining three tests were pushed to later versions of the plane due to delays in implementing new software meant to fix mission system sensors and the data fusion problems. All of the deferred tests relate to the AIM-120 missile, the only weapon the F-35 can currently use against enemy planes.
Tests of the F-35’s ability to fire and drop the majority of its planned weapons in a combat-realistic operating environment won’t actually begin until the Block 3F configuration in 2021. Accomplishing those will require a total of 50 test events.
DOT&E believes these more complicated test events “cannot be accomplished within the remaining time planned by the Program Office to complete Block 3F flight test” in May 2017. This would require testing at triple the rate of what is being accomplished now. But the Block 3F tests will be much more complex and realistic than the current simpler engineering tests. It is unlikely more complex tests will be accomplished at the same rate as the simple testing, much less triple the rate. If, to make up the time, the program cancels many of these tests or defers them to the next Block as it has done in the past, “readiness for operational testing and employment in combat [would be] at serious risk.”
Pushing off tests only adds to what has become a compounding problem. The program currently has a 5 percent discovery rate for simpler developmental testing. This means that for every 100 tests, 5 new problems are discovered. These new discoveries then have to be fixed and tested again, which is a costly and time-consuming process. Even more troublesome, engineers are identifying problems faster than they can fix them.
Inevitably, as testing continues and becomes more realistic, more and more problems will be identified, which will only draw out the process further.
According to DOT&E, recent discoveries that require design changes, modifications, and regression testing (testing of the fixes) “include the ejection seat for safe separation, wing fuel tank over-pressurization, and the life-limitations of the F-35B bulkhead.” The F-35 is already years behind schedule. Issues like these are guaranteed to make the problem even worse.
The JSF Program has already been in development for more than twenty years. The plane is still years away from being capable of providing any real contribution to the national defense if, in fact, it ever will be. The issues raised with this program are important for everyone, citizens and decision-makers alike to understand.
There is already discussion in the halls of the Capitol and the corridors of the Pentagon about the next fighter plane program beyond the F-35. Unless everyone learns from their mistakes with this program, history will be repeated. The United States can ill-afford another $1.4 trillion mistake that will do more to harm our national security than it does to secure it.
The DOT&E report makes perfectly clear that any further F-35 production at this point is unwise. The plane has yet to prove itself capable of performing even the basic combat tasks used to originally sell the program to the American people. Congress should scrutinize carefully any further production proposal, as only the contractors will benefit from turning out airplanes that can’t fight and that will carry a crushing retrofit bill. The rest of us—particularly those who fight our wars—will be left to bear the cost. (end of excerpt)
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