PARIS --- The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program continues to fall further behind its development schedule because new deficiencies are being discovered faster than previous ones can be fixed, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester said in his latest report.
His description of the state of the F-35 program 17 years after contract award, is hard to reconcile with the claims by main contractor Lockheed Martin and by the military that the F-35 is ready for combat.
The report notably states that:
-- “The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains below requirements and is dependent on work-arounds that would not meet Service expectations in combat situations.
-- “Over the previous year, most suitability metrics have remained nearly the same, or have moved only within narrow bands which are insufficient to characterize a change in performance.
-- “Overall fleet-wide monthly availability rates remain around 50 percent, a condition that has existed with no significant improvement since October 2014, despite the increasing number of new aircraft. One notable trend is an increase in the percentage of the fleet that cannot fly while awaiting replacement parts.
-- “Reliability growth has stagnated. It is unlikely that the program will achieve the JSF ORD (Operational Requirements Document) threshold requirements at maturity for the majority of reliability metrics.”
These opinions are those of Robert F. Behler, who was sworn in as Director of Operational Test and Evaluation on December 11, 2017. His 30-page report, published Jan. 23, describes a long list of software and hardware failings in the program that will probably delay the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) until late 2018, at the earliest.
This is significant because, unless the program successfully passes the 13-month IOT&E, it will not be able to move into full-scale production.
Behler is also critical of the JPO’s plan to “transition into the next phase of development – Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2) – beginning in CY18, to address deficiencies identified in Block 3F development and to incrementally provide planned Block 4 capabilities.”
“The original C2D2 schedule was not executable due to inadequate test resources in the timelines allocated for both developmental and operational testing to field the planned new capabilities,” he adds, so the program's C2D2 acquisition strategy and development and delivery timelines are unlikely to provide the anticipated results.
In the meantime, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) is trying to close out the current System Development and Demonstration (SDD) Phase, notably by deleting test points.
However, Behler’s report notes that “Despite the test point deletions, continued test delays, particularly for mission systems and F-35B flight sciences, will likely push the end of DT into the first or second quarter of CY18, even as time and funding are running out for System Development and Demonstration (SDD).”
A litany of deficiencies and shortfalls
It would be pointless to describe all of the failings and problems that the Director of OT&E lists in his report, but a few of the major issues highlighted provide a clear picture of the current state of the F-35 program. A link is provided at the bottom to download the full report.
Here is a selection of the more interesting observations:
-- As of mid-November 2017, the JSF development program was monitoring a total of 2,769 deficiency reports. These were reduced to (…) a priority list of 301 Priority 1 and 2 deficiencies deemed necessary for the program to address for combat effectiveness and operational testing. but only 88 of the 301 Priority 1 and 2 deficiencies were in-work, with the remaining 213 unresolved.(Emphasis added—Ed.)
-- The program has many known and acknowledged failures to meet the contract specification requirements. The program intends to seek relief from the SDD contract due to the lack of time and funding remaining.
-- The developmental and operational test teams continue to discover deficiencies and will discover more before and during IOT&E.
-- The F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) suspended durability testing for the F-35B after completion of the second lifetime of testing in February 2017 [as] the test article had so many repairs it was no longer representative of the production aircraft.
-- The U.S. Reprogramming Laboratory (USRL) began creating Block 3F mission data files (MDFs) in the summer of 2017, and it will take 12 to 15 months to deliver a fully-verified mission data load (MDL)….for IOT&E.
-- Concurrent F-35 development and production has resulted in multiple fielded F-35 configurations, many of which will remain active during the C2D2 phase.
-- The air-to-ground weapons events identified mission systems-related deficiencies that adversely affected the completion of the find, fix, track, target, engage, and assess kill chain.
-- Accuracy testing of the F-35A gun showed that it consistently had a long and to-the-right aiming bias, a deficiency that the JPO and Lockheed Martin are investigating.
-- The JPO and DOT&E have not received a report from the Navy on the results of vulnerability testing completed in 2016, which tested F-35B electrical and mission systems against electromagnetic pulses.
-- The operational suitability of the F-35 fleet remains below requirements and is dependent on work-arounds that would not meet Service expectations in combat situations.
-- Overall fleet-wide monthly availability rates remain around 50 percent, a condition that has existed with no significant improvement since October 2014, despite the increasing number of new aircraft. One notable trend is an increase in the percentage of the fleet that cannot fly while awaiting replacement parts.
-- The program continued working to address unresolved technical deficiencies. These include open deficiency reports identified during developmental testing, modifications to the pilot escape system, a growing number of physiological incidents, production line quality lapses, inadequate tire durability for the F-35B, deficiencies with the helmet display and night vision camera, and restrictions in air refueling for the F-35B and F-35C.
-- The F-35A gun has been consistently missing ground targets during strafe testing; the program is still troubleshooting the problems.
Click here for the full report (30 PDF pages) on the DOT&E website.