The U.S. Navy for the first time will begin testing its version of the F-35 fighter jet from an aircraft carrier this fall, according to the No. 2 official in charge of the program.
Rear Adm. Randy Mahr, deputy director of the Defense Department's Joint Strike Fighter program, didn't specify a date or ship for the upcoming evaluations. But he spoke confidently of the planned milestone for the F-35C, the Navy variant designed for taking off from and landing on carriers.
"It's going to be the year of the F-35C," he said during a briefing at the Navy League's Sea-Air-Space conference on Monday in National Harbor, Md.
Mahr acknowledged hardware and software problems that have plagued the three versions of the aircraft being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp., from a tailhook that didn't catch the arresting cable to a bulkhead that cracks to logistics software that improperly grounded jets. In February, the program office discovered that an engine fan blade "came apart" into pieces, he said.
But the issues have either been resolved or are in the process of being fixed and won't threaten the Marine Corps' plans to begin in July 2015 operational flights of the F-35B, Mahr said. That version is designed for short takeoffs and vertical landings, meaning it can fly like a plane and land like a helicopter.
Corps leaders last week hinted to lawmakers that the aircraft may not meet that date.
"We are tentatively behind schedule," Gen. John Paxton, the assistant commandant, told lawmakers during an April 2 hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Seapower. "The IOC is forecasted for July 2015," Paxton added, referring to the date for initial operational capability. "We have every expectation that could be delayed by several months. It will continue to be conditions based."
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck, who heads up the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, also said at the hearing that the Corps would not declare IOC until the software is developed to meet the requirements of the service.
The Government Accountability Office, known as the investigative arm of Congress, in a March 24 report cited an assessment made by the Pentagon's own director of operational test and evaluation that software problems could delay delivery of the aircraft's most advanced technology by 13 months.
When asked specifically about F-35B operational flights, Mahr said, "the Marines have not expressed any concerns at all about the IOC in 2015."
The F-35B operational flights will rely on a less robust version of software, known as 2B, designed to provide basic close-air support and fire such weapons as the Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile, or AMRAAM, and Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM. Both weapons have been successfully test-fired from the aircraft, Mahr said.
"We expect to be able to show that that software is ready to deploy," he said, adding that two more software upgrades, or "drops," are scheduled for the next two months.
Mahr acknowledged "some challenges" with the more robust version of software, known as 3F and designed to provide the full suite of war-fighting technology, which is scheduled for delivery in 2017.
"We think we have four to six months of risk on that end," he said. "We're doing everything we can to meet that date."
The program office has also made improvements to the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS (pronounced “Alice”), which determines whether the plane is safe to fly. A recent software upgrade to the system has drastically shortened the time it takes maintainers to load a webpage, to about 30 seconds from about five minutes, Mahr said.