PARIS --- In his March 23 testimony before the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittees, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), provided an overview of how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter had performed in four recent simulated deployments.
Two of these deployments were carried out by the Marine Corps, one on a ship and one ashore, and two by the US Air Force.
We reproduce below an excerpt from Gilmore’s written statements regarding the test deployments.
Deployment sustainment results
As I outlined earlier in my statement, Service-led deployments over the past year have revealed challenges to adequate suitability performance, and provided useful lessons for future operations. More detail is provided below.
I. During the Cross Ramp Deployment Demonstration flying period at Edwards AFB during May 4 – 8, 2015, the operational test squadron flew 20 of 22 planned missions.
The squadron originally intended to deploy four F-35A aircraft and planned most fly-days with two aircraft flying two sorties apiece, but could only make three aircraft available to participate in the exercise.
The ALIS data transfer problems forced the detachment to operate in an ALIS-offline mode until the morning of May 7, which restricted aircraft maintenance to minimal, simple activities.
The detachment was able to achieve a relatively high completion rate of planned sorties in spite of this largely because no mission systems were required for the flights, so failures in these components were left un-repaired.
By the end of the deployment, one of three aircraft had to be towed back to the test squadron hangar because it was down for a flight system discrepancy that the detachment could not fix in time.
The detachment also exposed problems with retaining spare part requisitions against aircraft when they are transferred between SOUs, and issues with keeping maintenance records intact when returning from ALIS-offline operations.
II. The shipboard flying period of the USS WASP deployment demonstration from May 18 – 28, 2015, excluding the return flights from the ship to home base on May 29, was not intended to maximize aircraft utilization rates, but showed difficulties in achieving adequate availability to support planned flight schedules.
The six deployed F-35B aircraft were mission capable for flight operations approximately 55 percent of the time, which led to the detachment flying 61 of 78 planned missions. The Marine Corps reports a higher number of sorties than missions, since each vertical landing constituted a sortie, while each post-flight engine shut down constituted a mission.
Several missions were canceled for weather, or other operational reasons, but 13 missions were canceled, apparently due to a lack of available aircraft.
In order to consistently generate tactically relevant four-aircraft mission packages day after day, out of the normal complement of six F-35B aircraft onboard an L-class amphibious ship, the F-35B would likely have to achieve availability rates closer to 80 percent; although during the deployment demonstration, the detachment did generate a four-aircraft mission on one day.
Fuel system reliability was particularly poor. This is more burdensome in the shipboard environment than at land bases, as fuel system maintenance in the hangar bay can restrict the ability to perform maintenance on other aircraft in the bay. Due to a fuel system problem that would have required an engine to be pulled, one aircraft was transferred on a one-time flight back to shore and swapped with an alternate aircraft, an option that would not exist in forward-deployed combat conditions.
Aircraft availability and utilization varied widely among the seven different aircraft used in total on the deployment, with the top performing aircraft flying 20 missions, and the least performing aircraft flying only 2 missions, not including a one-time ferry flight to shore to be swapped.
The ALIS data transfers also relied on combat-unacceptable workarounds, including using commercial Wi-Fi access to download aircraft files.
Several factors limited the ability to draw more conclusions about shipboard integration of the F-35B from this deployment demonstration. These included the lack of the rest of the Air Combat Element (ACE) aircraft onboard ship except for the required Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters; the use of developmental Support Equipment (SE), vice the production-representative SE the Marine operational squadron is now equipped with; and no employment of ordnance.
III. The Marine Corps conducted an assessment of F-35B austere site deployed operations at Twentynine Palms, California, from December 8 – 16, 2015, with eight F-35B aircraft assigned.
The Marines intended to fly four aircraft a day from an expeditionary landing field made of aluminum matting and with minimal permanent infrastructure, representing the type of temporary airfield that can be quickly built near the forward line of troops. The demonstration included the use of inert ordnance and production representative support equipment.
Aircraft availability for this detachment was again in the 55 to 60 percent range, which led to a significant number of missed flights on the planned flight schedule. The detachment flew 41 out of 79 planned missions; however, 22 of the 38 missions not flown were due to high crosswinds which made landing and taking off from the aluminum matting too risky.
Overall, 16 missions were lost due to either lack of aircraft availability, difficulties in transferring and accepting aircraft data into the deployed ALIS, or ground aborts.
Propulsion system maintenance was particularly burdensome. Two F-35B aircraft received foreign object damage to their engine fan stages, a result from operating in rugged conditions with jet wash likely blowing small rocks into aircraft intakes. This prevented those aircraft from further participation in flying activities until repairs were completed just prior to the ferry flights home. A contractor technician was called in from the East Coast and was able to repair the engine damage on site, as opposed to having to perform a full engine swap.
A further engine system discrepancy required an aircraft swap around mid-way through the detachment. Routine flight operations, such as aircraft start-up and basic troubleshooting, also relied heavily on contractor maintenance.
IV. The Air Force sent a detachment of six F-35A operational test aircraft from Edwards AFB to Mountain Home AFB from February 8 to March 2, 2016, to simulate a combat deployment of this variant in preparation for Air Force IOC later this year.
This demonstration employed both inert and live ordnance in the CAS and Aerial Interdiction roles, in conjunction with legacy platforms.
Results from this demonstration are still too preliminary to report on in full, although some early observations were made.
The detachment discovered a major discrepancy in the technical data for loading free fall ordnance after a released bomb hit the weapons bay door and then impacted and gouged the horizontal stabilizer. The aircraft returned to base safely and was eventually repaired on station, and the detachment coordinated with Lockheed Martin to correct the appropriate ordnance loading instructions.
The deployment also successfully transferred aircraft data files within the autonomic logistics infrastructure (i.e., using ALIS, the Central Point of Entry, and the ALOU); however, there were some difficulties in establishing ALIS on the host Air Force network on Mountain Home AFB.
Finally, the relatively frequent requirement to shut-down and restart an aircraft on start-up before flying due to software instabilities in vehicle and mission systems hampered the detachment’s ability to conduct alert launches.
Click here for the full text of Gilmore’s written statement to the hearing. The above excerpt can be found on p. 25-28.