This article first appeared in Defense Technology International.
After a year of broken promises and blown deadlines, and failure to make progress in flight testing that not even the harshest critics predicted, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is on the defensive.
The obvious problem is that flight-testing continues at a snail's pace. In January, program leaders were promising that 10 test aircraft would fly in 2009, and even in the spring they were forecasting that the first vertical landing would take place in late summer or early fall. By September, only one new jet was flying, but they still promised five more aircraft by year-end, and a vertical landing in October or November. By early December, one of those five aircraft had flown; BF-1, tasked with the vertical-landing tests, made it to the NAS Patuxent River, Md., flight-test center but had not flown again by mid-December.
The team blames manufacturing issues in general, and former program leadership in particular, saying too much emphasis was placed on visible milestones, so that aircraft rolled out were not ready to fly and aircraft that flew were not ready for sustained testing. In September, program leadership made a prediction, identified as 12-12-12: Within 12 months the team would have 12 aircraft in test and they would each be flying 12 sorties per month.
That prediction has been put in doubt by two developments: the small-to-zero likelihood that the end-of-2009 goals will be achieved; and a negative report by the reconvened Joint Estimating Team, which first reported on JSF in the fall of 2008. That report, predicting that testing would be completed two years late, was dismissed by JSF leaders as based on obsolete concepts of flight testing. The second report, indicating that the picture had not improved, persuaded new Pentagon procurement chief Ashton Carter to start looking at ways to reduce risk and mitigate delays.
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