A recent Defense Department analysis has reported that there is limited use to training students on the F-35 fighter jet because it is still in development and substantially limited in capability.
Student pilots officially began training at Eglin Air Force base this year.
The report provides a snapshot of what the military's newest and most-expensive fighter jet is capable of -- but mostly what it's not -- 12 years after work on the program began. It also points to several potential safety and procedural issues with the aircraft, including lack of radar capability and deficiencies in the oft-lauded and highly expensive helmet-mounted visual displays.
Air Force and F-35 program officials say the program is designed so that pilot training develops along with the aircraft, and that the training is valuable to the progression of the program. They noted that when the Air Force evaluated the training at Eglin last fall, it found no critical problems that would deter training from continuing.
Four test pilots were followed through the program between September and November to determine whether the school was ready for its first official class.
The Air Force gave it the go-ahead in December.
The Defense Department's Department of Testing and Evaluation had recommended the Air Force delay its evaluation of the training program until the F-35 possesses combat capability, the DoD report states. The Air Force went ahead with it and the Testing and Evaluation Department was tasked with reviewing its findings for its recent analysis, which was released in February.
It shows a snapshot of a program still in its infancy, only one-third of the way through development, the report states.
The F-35, which has variants for the Air Force, Marines and Navy, is going through development, production, training and testing at the same time, a process dubbed concurrency that the jet's developer Lockheed Martin originally touted as a way to save money and time.
The first years of the program have instead been plagued by cost overruns and delays.
A report released last week from the Government Accountability Office states the program has made significant developments in the past year and seems to be getting back on track, but rising long-term costs remain a major concern.
Acquisition of 2,457 jets was estimated to cost $395.7 billion in March 2012. That's up from the $233 billion for 2,866 jets that was estimated in 2001 when the program was conceived, according to the GAO report.
The costliest development phases are still ahead, it states.
All students learning to fly the F-35 must attend the courses at Eglin. Currently, only experienced pilots are training on the jets, and they will become instructors for future classes, said Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing, which hosts the school.
The pilots now are training on an early version of the jet, called Block 1, that has limited capability.
The planes can provide basic pilot training but have no combat capability. The pilots also are very restricted in what they are allowed to perform in the aircraft, according to the DoD report.
"The utility of training with an aircraft this early in development is limited because of the extreme aircraft operating limitation and lack of mission capability," the report states. "There are a number of restrictions on the aircraft that are typical of a test aircraft only partway through its flight test program, but very atypical of a fighter aircraft used for student training."
For example, the F-35s soaring over Northwest Florida are prohibited from performing aerobatics, descending at more than 6,000 feet per minute, exceeding Mach 0.9 speed or maneuvering at more than 5 Gs. They can't take off or land in formation, fly at night or use instruments to fly during weather events, the report states.
Winslow Wheeler, who released the report last week on the website of the Project for Government Oversight, said the analysis indicates that student training started too soon.
"The airplane is so immature that the pilots are getting very little out of it," he said of the DoD report. "The training exercise turns out to be clearly premature and should have been held off for another couple years until more competent airplanes are available for pilots to fly."
Toth said training student pilots, even on the limited-capability aircraft, allows them to set a foundation for the future of the program and create a cadre of instructor pilots.
In addition to the pilot training, a large number of aircraft maintainers are receiving hands-on experience with the jet and learning what it takes to get it off the ground each day, he said.
"When the aircraft is fully functional and capable, we will already have the maintainers in place and we will have pilots that are already able to operate the aircraft," he said.
Although full functionality is still several years off, Eglin is set to receive jets with additional capabilities this year.
By the end of the month, Lockheed Martin should deliver its first Block 2 to Eglin, said Kyra Hawn, a spokeswoman for the company. The jets will have additional weapons engagement capabilities.
Eglin should receive a second Block 2 jet shortly after and have a total of 24 by the end of the year, Toth said.
Eventually, the Block 1 aircraft also will be upgraded, although that was not initially in the plan.
Toth said Lockheed Martin has realized those planes also must be upgraded to be functional for the services.
Hawn said the malfunctions with the helmet-mounted display and the radar are being addressed, and were not designed to be fully functional with the early-version aircraft at Eglin now.
The DoD report states the training at Eglin was sufficient for the limited number of students that went through last fall, but with the new aircraft will come a new course syllabus and additional training requirements.
The Air Force had to provide substantial resources and work-arounds to meet the requirements of the limited syllabus in the fall, and it likely will have trouble keeping pace with a more advanced syllabus and an increased student load, the report states.
The Air Force provided additional F-16 jets to fly as chasers behind the F-35s in the cases when enough F-35s weren't cleared for flight. Those jets won't be available after this month.
Even so, Toth is optimistic, especially with the commitment of the men and women working on the program at Eglin.
The first official class of Air Force pilots has completed academic training and is starting flight tests. Another class started this month.
All three branches hope to put more than 50 pilots through training by the end of the fiscal year, Toth said.
More than 600 maintainers already have been trained, and that number should more than double this year, he said.
Toth said 19 sorties were launched Wednesday, the most in one day at Eglin.
"This program continues to grow on a daily basis and it's all a credit to all of our maintainers and pilots that are making this happen," he said.
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