“would likely result in failures in IOT&E causing the need for additional follow-on operational testing, and, most importantly, deliver Block 3F to the field with severe shortfalls in capability – capability that the Department must have if the F-35 is ever needed in combat against current threats.”
The program office appears to be dragging its feet with regards to testing many of the capabilities that supposedly make the F-35 so indispensable. One example is how long it has taken to develop the Verification Simulator (VSim). Lockheed Martin engineers had been tasked in 2001 with creating the VSim facility, which was intended to be an ultra-realistic, thoroughly test-validated “man-in-the-loop, mission systems software in-the-loop simulation developed to meet the operational test requirements for Block 3F IOT&E.” That is, it was meant to test in virtual reality those complex and rigorous scenarios that are impossible or too dangerous to test in real life, short of actual war.
The contractors fell so far behind construction schedule that the JPO abandoned VSim in 2015. Instead, Naval Air Systems Command was tasked with building a government-run Joint Simulation Environment (JSE) to perform VSim’s mission. The contractors are supposed to provide aircraft and sensor models, but so far “negotiations for the F-35 models have not yet been successful.” This is preventing the program from designing the virtual world where the F-35 and enemy aircraft and defenses interact as they would in the real world, causing further delays.
The F-35 cannot be fully tested without a properly prepared JSE. The simulation has to be designed based on real-world data gathered during flight tests or the simulation would only test what the contractor says the jet can do. For example, a real F-35 has to fly over a test range where the same radar systems our enemies use are active so that it can gather data about how the jet’s onboard sensors react. This data is used to verify the simulation software. It is a highly complicated process that takes time. As DOT&E reports, “Previous efforts of this magnitude have taken several years, so it is unlikely that NAVAIR will complete the project as planned in time to support IOT&E.”
The program is also formulating plans to reduce the number of testing personnel and test aircraft just when the program needs them the most. These plans would see the number of test aircraft cut in half from 18 to 9 and testing workforce reduced from 1,768 to 600.
Dr. Gilmore reported shortly after the Air Force IOC declaration that the program will not be able to produce enough F-35s in the necessary final configuration to proceed with operational testing. “Due to the lengthy program delays and discoveries during developmental testing, extensive modifications are required to bring the OT aircraft, which were wired during assembly to accommodate flight test instrumentation, into the production representative configuration required,” the report states. It goes on to say that more than 155 modifications have to made to the 23 planes specifically tasked for the upcoming combat (“operational”) testing and that some of these have not even been contracted yet, meaning that the start of IOT&E will be further delayed.
Not only has the Joint Program Office failed to follow the operational testing plan it agreed to, it has failed to fund and test the equipment essential to conduct the tests. This includes no funding for flight-testing the Data Acquisition Recording and Telemetry pod, an instrument mounted to the F-35 that is used to simulate the aircraft’s weapons. This is essential for reporting and analyzing the results of each simulated weapons firing. There can be no such tests until the pod is cleared for function and safety in conditions that the plane will fly during the engagement and weapons testing.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Pentagon and the contractors will continue to ignore the unpleasant information about the F-35’s performance in testing and the seemingly unending delays and instead attempt to create a false impression in the minds of the American people and their policymakers. In the recent exchanges between President Trump and the Pentagon, it appears no one directed the president’s attention to anyone other than General Bogdan at the JPO. It is apparent he has not spoken with anyone critical of the program, like Dr. Gilmore. If he had, based on the results of this report, it is difficult to see how anyone could honestly say the F-35 is “fantastic.”
The DOT&E’s latest report is yet more proof that the F-35 program will continue to be a massive drain on time and resources for years to come, and will provide our armed forces with a second-rate combat aircraft less able to perform its missions than the “legacy” aircraft it is meant to replace. The men and women who take to the skies to defend the nation deserve something better.
Despite the conventional wisdom in Washington, the services do not have to be stuck with the F-35. Other options do exist.
1. To fill the near-term hole in our air-to-air forces, start a program to refurbish and upgrade all available F-16As and F-18s with life-extended airframes and the much higher thrust F-110-GE-132 (F-16) and F-404-GE-402 (F-18) engines. Upgrade their electronic systems with more capable off-the-shelf electronic systems. This will give us fighters that are significantly more effective in air-to-air combat than either the later F-16 and F-18 models or the F-35. Add airframes from the boneyard if needed to augment the force. Most importantly, bring pilot training hours up to the minimum acceptable level of 30 hours per month, in part with money saved by not purchasing underdeveloped F-35s now.
2. To fill the far more serious near-term hole in close air support forces, complete the rewinging of the 100 A-10s the Air Force has refused to rewing and then expand the inadequate existing force of only 272 A-10s by refurbishing/rewinging every available A-10 in the boneyard to A-10C standards.
3. Immediately undertake three new competitive prototype flyoff programs to design and build a more lethal and more survivable close air support plane to replace the A-10, and to design and build two different air-to-air fighters that are smaller and more combat-effective than F-16s, F-22s, and F-18s. Test them all against competent enemies equipped with radar missile and stealth countermeasures.
These programs should follow the model of the Lightweight Fighter and A-X Programs in the 1970s, particularly in regard to live-fire, realistic-scenario competitive flyoff tests. These programs resulted in the F-16 and the A-10, two indisputably highly effective aircraft that were each less expensive than the preferred Pentagon alternatives at the time. And they became operational after testing in less than 10 years, not more than 25.
4. At an absolute minimum, the F-35 test program already in place that both the JPO and Dr. Gilmore agreed to must be executed to understand, before further production, exactly what this aircraft can and cannot do competently. That means suspending further F-35 production until those tests are complete and honestly reported to the Secretary of Defense, the President, and Congress.
The F-35 program office has reached a crucial decision point. Bold action is required now to salvage something from the national disaster that is the Joint Strike Fighter. The administration should continue the review of the F-35 program. But officials should not just talk to the generals and executives as they have no incentive to tell the hard truth because they have a vested financial interest in making sure the program survives (regardless of capability). As this report shows, they are not telling the whole story. There are many more people lower down the food chain with other points of view. They are the ones possessing the real story. And, as the above suggestions show, there are still options. It is not too late to make significant changes to the program, as its defenders like to claim.
Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight, where this article originally appeared.
Image Credit: Creative Commons/Flickr.