The head of the U.S. Defense Department's F-35 program said the number of "deficiencies" in the stealth fighter jet's hardware and software is decreasing but that hundreds of technical challenges remain.
Speaking to reporters last week in his offices in Arlington, Virginia, Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan discussed a range of issues affecting the Pentagon's biggest weapons program at nearly $400 billion, including the hundreds of lingering deficiency reports, or DRs, known as "technical debt" in acquisition parlance.
"There are 419 things that we have yet to decide with the war fighters how we're going to fix them, whether we're going to fix them and when we're going to fix them," he said. The figure was three times higher a few years ago and "we think the technical debt that we have -- the deficiencies that we have -- are things that we can handle … within the next two years," he said.
During the more than hour-long briefing, Bogdan said the roughly $50 billion development part of the Joint Strike Fighter program is on pace to wrap up in early 2018, hit back against a recent test report that was critical of the aircraft's performance to date, and touted recent accomplishments and upcoming milestones, including the Air Force's plans to declare the F-35A ready for initial operations in August.
MISSION SYSTEMS, ALIS
When asked what technical areas were causing the deficiency reports, Bogdan said most of the issues were related to software for the aircraft's mission systems, including radar and sensors, and its inventory system, known as the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS (pronounced "Alice"), which determines whether the plane is safe to fly.
Problems with ALIS are nothing new. The system in the past has recommended grounding functional aircraft -- against the recommendations of pilots and maintainers -- due in part to faulty parts numbers listed in its database, officials acknowledged in a 2014 segment on the CBS News program, "60 Minutes."
In the past couple of years, the program office and contractor overhauled the development and fielding of the logistics system, Bogdan said. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin Corp., for example, reassigned more engineers to improve the software, "changed out" management of the system in the company's Mission Systems and Training unit in Orlando and added more oversight from officials in its larger Aeronautics business, he said.
"At the time, we were treating it like a piece of support equipment, not recognizing that it has twice as much code in it as the airplane," he said.
More recently, the program office on Jan. 16 launched its first of quarterly software upgrades planned for ALIS to fix previously identified bugs, Bogdan said. The "service packs" -- separate from annual software upgrades to incorporate new features -- are designed to speed up the fielding of improvements, he said.
One hardware issue Bogdan discussed in detail was improvements to the aircraft's ejection system to minimize the risk of lightweight pilots from sustaining neck injuries.
Last year, officials identified an unacceptable risk of neck injury during parachute deployment at low-speed conditions for lightweight pilots, the Air Force has said. The requirement is for the seat to be certified for any pilot weighing between 103 and 245 pounds, but an unacceptable level of risk was discovered for pilots weighing less than 136 pounds, the service has said.
Bogdan said the Pentagon's recent test report makes it sound like one in four F-35 pilots is at risk of sustaining a neck injury. In reality, he said, "the probability of any one pilot and ejecting and hurting his or her neck is one in 50,000 – not one in four."
While only one male U.S. pilot was affected by the ejection system issue -- he has been temporarily assigned to fly the F-22 Raptor, the Pentagon's other fifth-generation stealth fighter, and will return to fly the F-35 once a fix is in place -- partner nations have smaller aviators and so officials are working on solutions, Bogdan said.
A fix will involve three changes slated to be in place by 2017: a lighter helmet to reduce neck loads during the catapult and windblast phases of ejection; a "weight switch" on the ejection seat to delay the parachute's opening for lighter pilots and thus reduce the opening shock; and developing a head support sewn into the parachute risers to reduce the rearward head movement of the pilot when the main chute of the ejection seat opens, Bogdan said.
AIR FORCE CUTS
Bogdan downplayed the significance of the Air Force's recent decision to cut the number of F-35As it plans to buy in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1. The service reduced the number of conventional aircraft it planned to purchase from 48 to 43, according to budget documents released this month.
The Air Force still plans to buy a total of 1,763 aircraft and that it deferred purchasing those five aircraft until a later date, Bogdan said. The Navy kept the number of F-35C carrier models it plans to buy in the next fiscal year at four, while the Marine Corps increased the number of F-35B jump-jet versions it plans to purchase from 14 to 16, representing a net loss of just three aircraft, he said.
The program remains on track for the Air Force to declare initial operational capability this year, hopefully by Aug. 1, and to trim the cost of the F-35A model from roughly $100 million per plane to about $85 million per plane in 2019, Bogdan said. Indeed, a sign on the wall of his office included a countdown for upcoming milestones, including the "USAF IOC," which was listed as 173 days away.
Overall, the U.S. and 11 partner countries still plan to buy a total of 873 Joint Strike Fighters over the next six years through 2021, Bogdan said. That's down just 20 aircraft when taking into account the recent U.S. budgetary changes – and excluding the potential for more international customers, he said.
"The price difference between 893 airplanes and 873 airplanes, I'm not sure I can even measure that," he said. "It's less than 1 percent."
The F-35 is the Pentagon's most expensive weapons acquisition program, estimated to cost $391 billion to purchase a total of 2,457 aircraft for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. The Corps declared the F-35B ready for initial operations last year -- albeit with a less lethal version of the aircraft. The Air Force is expected to follow suit with the F-35A this year and the Navy with the F-35C in 2019.
Eight countries have committed to help develop the F-35, including the U.K., Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway. Also, Israel, Japan and South Korea plan to buy production models of the aircraft.
Canada's commitment to buy 65 Joint Strike Fighters is uncertain in the wake of a recent change in administration that has pledged to launch a new fighter jet competition.
"Canada is still a partner in the program; they have not change their status," Bogdan said. "What I believe will happen is that sometime this spring the government will decide to have a competition. I also believe that the F-35 will be part of that competition, but it's up to Canada to decide that.
"We clearly understand governments take time to make tough decisions like this," he added. "We're watching what happens and we will respond to the needs of Canada."