The latest report by the Pentagon's chief weapons tester, Michael
Gilmore, provides a detailed critique of the F-35's technical
challenges, and focuses heavily on what it calls the "unacceptable"
performance of the plane's software, according to a 25-page draft
obtained by Reuters.
The report forecast a possible 13-month delay in completing testing
of the Block 2B software needed for the Marine Corps to clear the
jets for initial combat use next year, a priority given the high
cost of maintaining current aging warplanes.
Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation for the U.S.
Defense Department, has long been critical of the $392 billion F-35
Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon's costliest weapons program, and
the latest report is no exception.
The report, due to be sent to Congress this week, said the aircraft
is proving less reliable and harder to maintain than expected, and
remains vulnerable to propellant fires sparked by missile strikes.
Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the Pentagon's F-35
program chief, said in a statement to Reuters that Gilmore's report
was factually accurate but did not reflect concerted efforts under
way by his office and industry to address software, reliability and
"The basic design of the F-35 is sound, and test results underscore
our confidence in the ultimate performance that the United States
and its international partners and allies value so highly," Bogdan
said. "Of course, we recognize risks still exist in the program, but
they are understood and manageable."
Bogdan said he remained confident that the F-35's initial combat
capability would be ready in time for the U.S. Marine Corps next
year, and cited a series of successful weapons tests done late last
year. He said the program was about halfway through developmental
testing after completing 1,153 flights and accomplishing more than
9,000 test objectives in 2013.
Lockheed is developing the F-35 for the Marines, Air Force and Navy,
and eight countries that helped fund its development: Britain,
Canada, Australia, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Denmark and the
Netherlands. Israel and Japan have also ordered the jet.
An official at South Korea's arms procurement agency, the Defense
Acquisition Program Administration said any delays beyond an
intended 2018 delivery date would be "problematic". Seoul has said
it would buy 40 of the F-35s, though still has to finalize this
A senior Japan Defense Ministry official said: "We can do nothing
but ask the JPO (Joint Program Office) to speed up the program."
Tokyo plans to buy 42 of the stealth fighters, with the first four
due for delivery by March 2017.
The Australian Defence Force declined to comment. Australia is one
of the largest international buyers with plans for up to 100 F-35s.
The F-35 program, which began in 2001, is 70 percent over initial
cost estimates, and years behind schedule, but top U.S. officials
say it is now making progress. They have vowed to safeguard funding
for the program to keep it on track.
Earlier this week, the nonprofit Center for International Policy
said Lockheed had greatly exaggerated its estimate that the F-35
program sustained 125,000 U.S. jobs to shore up support for the
Both reports could provide fresh fodder for critics of the F-35
program, including backers of Boeing Co, which is hoping to sell the
U.S. Navy more of its F/A-18 fighter jets.
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But Lockheed Chief Executive Marillyn Hewson told reporters on
Thursday that she saw continued support for the F-35 from the U.S.
government, Congress and foreign allies.
"There's no question ... that we need the F-35. It brings a very
important, unique capability for our nation," she said.
Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein said Gilmore's report confirmed the
F-35 was meeting or exceeding flight test goals, and the company
would continue to tackle issues as they arose.
"The challenges identified are known items and the normal
discoveries found in a test program of this size and complexity," he
Gilmore's report acknowledged the F-35's progress in 2013 on flight
testing, despite government furloughs and two fleet-wide groundings.
But it said the program was still struggling to integrate the
plane's "mission systems," or sensors, weapons and other equipment
needed for use in military operations.
The current software generated too many nuisance warnings and
resulted in poor sensor performance. Further work on software had
been slowed by testing required to validate earlier fixes, the
It said Lockheed had delivered F-35 jets with 50 percent or less of
the software capabilities required by its production contracts with
The computer-based logistics system known as ALIS was fielded with
"serious deficiencies" and remained behind schedule, which affected
servicing of existing jets needed for flight testing, the report
said. It said the ALIS diagnostic system failed to meet even basic
But the most immediate concern involved the Block 2B version of the
software that must be completed in order for the Marines to start
using the jets from July 2015.
"Initial results with the new increment of Block 2B software
indicate deficiencies still exist in fusion, radar, electronic
warfare, navigation, electro-optical target system, distributed
aperture system, helmet-mounted display system, and datalink," the
report said, noting the problems could delay efforts to complete
Block 2B development and flight test.
The report cited projections that the 2B software would not be
completed until November 2015, 13 months later than planned. This
would delay release to the F-35 fleet until July 2016, a year after
the Marines want to start using the jets.
It said there is also little margin for any weight growth, and the
airplane's increased use of electrical systems makes it vulnerable
to lightning and missile strikes.
Bogdan said extensive studies had showed the plane's radar-evading
capabilities, advanced sensors, ability to fuse data, advanced
countermeasures and electronic attack equipment greatly reduced the
chance that it would be hit by enemy fire.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; editing by Doina Chiacu and David
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