As the F-35 program limps toward the end of its much-delayed operational testing period and subsequent full-rate production decision, unanswered questions about its combat effectiveness and suitability for service within the fleet remain. The Pentagon weapons testing office’s 2019 annual report, released earlier this year, paints a picture of an incompletely designed and vulnerable aircraft that may never be able to perform many of its intended functions.
The director of operational test and evaluation’s (DOT&E) report includes the following lowlights:
-- The gun for the Air Force’s version not only can’t shoot straight, but breaks the aircraft when fired.
-- There have been no appreciable improvements in the program’s overall reliability since 2016.
-- The entire F-35 system remains vulnerable to cyber threats.
-- The simulation facility necessary to fully test the aircraft and train pilots remains unfinished.
As the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) recently reported, a previously confidential document produced by the F-35 program office plotted out the still-growing number of design flaws it was grappling with as of February 28, 2020. As the program approaches a full-rate production decision, the total number of reported unresolved design flaws has increased by 10, up from the total reported by the testing office in January—a time when the total number of flaws should be decreasing.
The F-35 Joint Program Office did not respond to comments for this report.
Unaddressed Design Flaws Adding Risk
The services set lofty goals for the F-35 program at its 2001 inception. The program established 536 performance specifications for the functional requirements of the aircraft and its components. As of September 17, 2019, the program had satisfied only 493 of them.
The latest testing report on the F-35 shows there hasn’t been appreciable improvement in the program’s overall reliability since 2016.
The program office is expected to formally revise the original contract with Lockheed Martin before the full-rate production decision to delete some of the requirements and complete the rest of the work during later development projects. The testing office’s report does not include a full list of the unmet goals, but mentioned that the aircraft is falling short of the airframe durability standards. That means the aircraft are unlikely to last as long as planned, and readiness will be negatively impacted by the failure to build an effective logistics and maintenance network. The testing office reports that many of the unmet goals may never be achieved or will only be reached during later development projects.
Despite the Pentagon’s self-congratulatory declaration in 2018 that the program had completed its troubled development process, the testing office reports that in fact the development phase contract “may take years to complete.” Meanwhile, pilots today are dealing with a problem-ridden aircraft that requires them to work around faulty components that, according to DOT&E, “may be observed from both operational testing and fielded operations.” Translation: U.S. pilots will take underdeveloped and glitchy aircraft into combat for the foreseeable future.
In addition to the requirements that have not been—and possibly will not be—met, the program is still plagued by hundreds of unresolved design flaws. The Pentagon calls these design flaws “deficiencies,” and as of the release of the annual testing report, the F-35 program had 873. Most were identified prior to the declared end of the program’s development phase—officially known as system development and demonstration—providing more evidence of just how premature the decision to end that phase was.
As the F-35 continues to stagger toward the operational testing finish line, we should gain a clearer picture of the program’s true capabilities and the flaws that must be corrected. If and when the Joint Simulation Environment is finished and the remaining testing events are completed, the testing office will evaluate all the testing data and include its assessment in an official Initial Operational Test & Evaluation report.
That will be the final legal hurdle before the much-anticipated full-rate production decision, currently expected as early as October 2020. The original schedule had the program reaching this point six years ago, in 2014.
The Pentagon has essentially treated the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation process as a mere formality, despite federal law mandating operational testing as a precursor to full-rate production. More than 440 F-35s have been delivered to the three services already, and additional aircraft have been delivered to U.S. allies. Pentagon officials announced an agreement with the prime contractors for three years’ worth of F-35 production in late 2019, placing another 478 aircraft in the pipeline for the U.S. and the international partners. Full-rate production for the F-35 is 160 aircraft per year, which is the number of aircraft to be produced in lot 13.
By making such an agreement, the Pentagon made a de facto full-rate production decision even though the program has yet to meet the legal criteria to justify such a move.
As yet another annual operational testing report clearly shows, all we will get for our money in these deals are deeply flawed aircraft that will require extensive and expensive reworking and upgrades for years to come.
In effect, Lockheed Martin will be paid at least twice to make these aircraft the right way. Any purported savings will quickly be subsumed as the bill comes due for rushing an incompletely designed aircraft into production.
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