The F-35 program is once again in trouble, with full flight tests delayed until at least 2018

The Pentagon has released its end-of-year progress report on the F-35, and once again, the news isn’t very good. This is nothing new for the F-35, which has been bombarded by poor performance reviews, cost overruns, and directly subject to criticism by President-elect Donald Trump.

On paper, the F-35 is supposed to complete its System Development and Demonstration (SDD) and begin its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) by August, 2017. SDD certification means the aircraft is in a mature state of development with demonstrated capabilities in live-fire exercises. IOT&E refers to “Dedicated operational test and evaluation conducted on production, or production representative articles, to determine whether systems are operationally effective and suitable, and which supports the decision to proceed Beyond Low Rate Initial Production (BLRIP).”

I'm not saying that all delayed projects fail -- but these were cutting-edge graphics when the first video game featuring the F-35 shipped in 1997.

I’m not saying that all delayed projects fail — but these were cutting-edge graphics when the first video game featuring the F-35 shipped in 1997.

The Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) has been in SDD since 2001 and was expected to complete that process this year. That’s no longer going to happen. Instead, the report indicates the F-35 ” will not be able to start IOT&E with full combat capability until late CY18 or early CY19, at the soonest.” Here are some of the new reasons why:

  • Technology and system improvements have been rolled out to the F-35 program in what are known as “blocks.” Block 3F mission systems and development testing aren’t expected to be complete until July, 2018. Block 3F weapon testing and integration is also well behind schedule. The F-35B variant (that’s the short-takeoff and vertical-landing version developed for the Marines) won’t receive its flight envelope Block 3F full upgrade until the middle of 2018 if the current production schedule manages to hold;
  • There have been further delays to gun testing on all three platforms and recently discovered “gunsight deficiencies” have delayed this testing as well. The four-barrel, 25mm GAU-22/A cannon that the F-35 relies on also carries a laughable amount of ammunition — just 182 rounds for the F-35A, or 220 rounds in an external pod for the F-35B and F-35C. The A-10 Thunderbolt II carries 1,174 rounds for its 30mm GAU-8/A, while even the F-16’s 20mm M61A1 Vulcan 6-barrel rotary cannon packs 511 rounds;
  • The F-35 has an extremely sophisticated computer system for managing mission payloads and hardware swap-outs, and estimating when various components have reached end-of-life. The system mostly doesn’t work yet. The Autonomic Logistics Information System is now expected to be ready by mid-2018. Similarly, Mission Data Loads — mission-specific target and sensor information loaded for particular types of operations — aren’t expected to be available until June, 2018.

The next few points are worth quoting in their entirety:

  • Significant, well-documented deficiencies; for hundreds of these, the program has no plan to adequately fix and verify with flight test within SDD; although it is common for programs to have unresolved deficiencies after development, the program must assess and mitigate the cumulative effects of these remaining deficiencies on F-35 effectiveness and suitability prior to finalizing and fielding Block 3F (emphasis added);
  • Overall ineffective operational performance with multiple key Block 3F capabilities delivered to date, relative to planned IOT&E scenarios, which are based on various fielded threat laydown;
  • Continued low aircraft availability and no indications of significant improvement, especially for the early production lot IOT&E aircraft;
  • Delays in completing the required extensive and time-consuming modifications to the fleet of operational test aircraft which, if not mitigated with an executable plan and contract, could significantly delay the start of IOT&E.

Reaping the whirlwind of concurrency

Part of the reason the F-35’s development costs and deployment times have exploded into such a boondoggle is because the Pentagon was smoking crack when it approved the aircraft’s development strategy. Ordinarily, we develop military hardware by building prototypes and fine-tuning capabilities and systems before we build those systems into aircraft. With the F-35, the government embraced the idea of building hardware while we had no idea how to implement its capabilities. Imagine breaking ground on a 200-story skyscraper if you had only a vague idea how to build anything above 120 stories. You’d be assuming that whatever techniques are required for constructing a 200-story building can be easily retrofitted into your 120-story model. If it turns out they can’t be, you’re going to eat the mother of all development overruns and delays while you retrofit the 120-story building for whatever improvements are required to finish it.

F35-FMC2

These are not great numbers. Even grading on a curve.

That’s more-or-less what the Pentagon did with the F-35, and the report makes it clear just how stupid it were for trying it. Above, you can see the F-35’s stats across each variant (Standard, STVOL, catapult-assisted). MC means Mission Capable, or the percentage of F-35’s of that variant that can fly any mission, while FMC means Fully Mission Capable, or the percentage of F-35’s that can fly all intended missions. FMC capability varies depending on which “Block” the fighter belongs to, but while later fighter blocks have better ratings, there are also fewer of these fighters compared with earlier blocks:

Due to concurrent development and production, which resulted in delivering operational aircraft before the program has completed development and finalized the aircraft design, the Services must send the current fleet of F-35 aircraft to depot facilities. This is to receive modifications that have been designed since the aircraft were originally manufactured and are now required for full capability. Some of these modifications are driven by faults in the original design that were not discovered until after production had started, such as major structural components that do not meet the requirements for the intended lifespan, and others are driven by the continuing improvement of the design of combat capabilities that were known to be lacking when the aircraft were first built. These modifications are a result of the concurrency of production and development and cause the program to expend resources to send aircraft for major re-work, often multiple times… Since SDD will continue at least to the middle of 2018, and by then the program will have delivered nearly 200 aircraft to the Services in other than the 3F configuration, the depot modification program and its associated concurrency burden will be with the Services for years to come.

When the F-35 was laid down, the US Air Force promised that the aircraft would be in service until 2070, with full unit delivery not expected until 2037. I’d be stunned if the aircraft achieves anything like that level of success — given the cost overruns and scaling problems it seems far more likely that the Air Force will shift to deploying large numbers of various types of drones long before the government finishes its original procurement of F-35s. Today, it’s less a combat aircraft and more of a jobs package / flying bug report.

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