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F-35 boss: We're getting it right, just give us time

There's nothing wrong with the F-35 Lightning II that old fashioned engineering can't fix, its program boss told Senate lawmakers on Tuesday -- the only question is how long it'll take.

In a genial session with three members of the Senate Armed Services Committee's air-land panel, Vice Adm. David Venlet said "technical and cost issues certainly exist" with Lockheed Martin's jet of tomorrow, the largest defense program in history.

They include the pilot's helmet continuing to fall short of spec; problems with the tailhook on the Navy's C version; electronic warfare "antenna quality;" and "buffet loads in flight," Venlet said.

But -- "Every issue we have in view today is very much in the category of normal development for fighters -- tactical aircraft. Good old fashioned engineering is going to take care of every one of those and we will work on those hard enough that they’re deemed good enough by the fleet."

See? Nothing to worry about. So when can the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy expect their As, Bs and Cs to reach initial operational capability?

Still no word on that.

Venlet said he's heard from the services that they were pleased with the year the program had in 2011 -- which included the B's debut at sea and other milestones -- but even they, by his own account, are holding out to see whether Lockheed and the Joint Program Office can keep it up.

"They would say 'Dave, we’d like you to be more than a one-year wonder -- string a couple of years of performance together and we’ll declare IOC.'"

No rush! In the meantime, the Air Force is just going to go ahead and extend the lives of 300 of its F-16s; the Navy will extend the lives of 150 of its F/A-18 Hornets; and the Marines are going to plan to keep flying their AV-8B Harriers until 2030. Australia, a charter member of Club F-35, may delay its purchase by another two years, even as the U.K. and Canada keep up their Hamlet routines about what kind of jets they want or even whether they want them. But the Fellowship is basically solid and new members could even be around the corner -- Venlet said program officials are getting ready to play in South Korea's pending fighter competition.

Lockheed officials jumped in ahead of Venlet's optimistic assessment with another announcement Tuesday detailing the F-35's progress so far this year. The F-35 fleet is flying up a storm, said spokeswoman Laurie Quincy: Air Force As have flown 164 times. The Marines' Bs aircraft have completed 122 flights, 114 of which began with a short takeoff, and Bs have conducted 49 vertical landings. (The B can land conventionally or vertically.) Navy Cs have flown 87 times.

"[T]he ... fleet surpassed the 15,000 total test point threshold, completing approximately 25 percent of the program’s entire requirement of more than 59,000 test points," Quincy said. "Overall the F-35 test program remains ahead of the 2012 flight test plan, which calls for the accumulation of 1,001 test flights and 7,873 baseline test points as well as additional points beyond the original plan."

Plus the jets have demonstrated their speed, agility, and ability to carry some payloads, though they haven't released any live weapons yet.

Still, there were many cracks in Tuesday's happy facade. Venlet acknowledged that the F-35's software -- both for the jet itself and the offboard system that will help manage its logistics -- remains a big challenge. ("You can't ever take your eye off the software," he said.) He said the Air Force's Aeronautical Systems Center and Naval Air Systems Command both would be playing a bigger role in helping wrestle that down, the latest admission that service systems expertise has been lacking from the joint program.

And another witness, Vice Adm. Walter Skinner, a senior Navy Department weapons-buyer, said there's still of lot of work ahead figuring out what's wrong with the C's tailhook. Although Venlet has said before that the hook problem was just one of those things you discover when you're developing an airplane,  engineers don't quite know what they're in for, Skinner said.

"The hook not engaging has happened to other aircraft besides the F-35," he said. "We've gone through initial fault trees for that occurance, we're still in analysis, we'll have a preliminary design review at end of next month, at which time we'll be able to ascertain the scope of the fix, the cost, and if there will be a schedule penalty associated with implementation."

So there are still many hurdles, but the bottom line, said Venlet, is that the F-35 has until fiscal year 2016 to continue with its tests. "If it all stays within the family of normal fighter development," he said, "we have ability to stay on schedule and on cost."

If it doesn't, DoD may delay buying more airplanes to punish Lockheed, but the overall program will continue as it always has.

 

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