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F-35 Combat Testing Delayed as Software, Mechanical Issues Persist

The Pentagon’s fifth-generation fighter probably won’t be ready for initial operational test and evaluation until mid-2018, a year later than previously planned, due to unresolved technical issues that still plague the aircraft.

Speaking before a House Armed Services Committee panel Wednesday, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of Operational Test and Evaluation, said testing of the most complex mission systems is still ahead of the aircraft -- and significant software glitches persist.

As contractors worked to debug one software version before introducing the next, the program had shifted its approach from one based on schedule to focus on capabilities development, Gilmore said.

“Missions systems must work in some reasonable sense of that word and we must provide every incentive to the contractors to make the mission systems work leading up to and after IOT&E, in my view,” he said.

Initial operational test and evaluation is the final step before full-rate production of new equipment and also clears the aircraft for combat operations.

A stability issue with the current Block 3 version of the F-35 software package is causing a mistiming that causes the radar to shut off about once every four hours of flight time, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, program executive officer for the F-35’s Joint Program Office.

Officials will know by next month if software fixes are able to limit that malfunction to once every eight to 10 flight hours -- an imperfect solution, but one that is acceptable to the pilots flying the aircraft, he said.

Nonetheless, Bogdan said he was optimistic about the progress of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program. The cost and significance of the acquisition effort made even minor problems loom large in public perception, he said.

“Overall, the F-35 program is executing fairly well across entire spectrum of acquisition,” he said. “The program is at a pivot point and is now rapidly changing growing and accelerating.”

The F-35 recently reached 50,000 flight hours across its three variants, according to Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley, who was also positive about the aircraft’s progress.

The F-35B Marine Corps jump-jet variant, which was the first to reach initial operational capability last year, is on schedule to deploy to Iwakuni, Japan, in January, Stackley said. The aircraft recently participated in a combined arms exercise with Marines at Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, he said.

Meanwhile, the Air Force is planning a publicity blitz for its F-35A variant, with 14 events scheduled before the end of this year, when the aircraft is set to reach IOC. Five F-35s will also make appearances at the Farnborough and Royal International Air Tattoo air shows in England, Bogdan said.

Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management issues for the Government Accountability Office, told lawmakers it was clear the U.S. needed a fifth-generation fighter capability. But even though acquisition costs are falling, he said the aircraft would remain a major expense for years to come.

The continued acquisition process would cost $14 billion per year over the next decade, and then nearly $13 billion through 2038 -- long enough to pose challenges to other major acquisition projects, Sullivan said. And that figure, he noted, did not include the costs to maintain the F-35. Those, he said, were set to near $1 trillion across the fighter’s life cycle.

Originally, he noted, F-35 acquisition was estimated to be completed by 2026, a projection that proved too optimistic by at least 12 years.

“There’s got to be a little truth in advertising,” he said.

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