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The painstaking effort to write the complex software for the F-35 may slow development of the fighter jet, the Air Force's top uniformed officer said.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said his service's version of the tri-service stealth fighter is showing "good software stability," but also that he was worried that the Joint Strike Fighter program might not be able to finish and test the software on time.
That might cause the software to become "the pacing item in terms of the development schedule," Schwartz said last week at a conference hosted by Credit Suisse.
JSF program officials don't dispute that, but say they have added extra time and more software engineers to stave off delays.
"The schedule and resourcing has been adjusted to address the risks that we saw associated with those next steps," Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore, deputy JSF program manager, said at the same conference.
The F-35 program has been producing software at a world-class rate, but bringing the various bits of software together and integrating it with other onboard systems has historically been problematic, Moore said.
Along with software, Schwartz said, the plane's production schedule and technical glitches with the helmet-mounted display were his top concerns about the F-35A.
He also said the fighter was structurally sound but has a few aerodynamic "hot spots." The aircraft continues to perform well in flight tests, exceeding both its planned time aloft and test points.
"From a performance point of view the platform looks solid, but there a couple other aspects that are worrisome," he said.
Schwartz also questioned whether Lockheed Martin would be able to deliver aircraft as scheduled.
"The more fundamental issue is the ability of the factory floor to produce machines on time and with minimum change work and so forth," he said. "I've been disappointed in the fact that the schedule has continued to slip. We had a plan for nose-to-tail exchange between legacy aircraft and the F-35. That plan has been upset. … It's a pain in the ass."
He implored Lockheed Martin to "deliver what they promised."
The JSF program office said that the program is keeping to its revised schedule.
"The production line, right now, is holding schedule. I think that's the first time I can stand in front of you and say that," Moore said.
Right now, there are 100 aircraft in some stage of the manufacturing process, and 50 should be flying by 2012, he said.
Moore said that he expects the process to improve and get cheaper as experience builds. Production should start to increase in 2013.
But Moore said Congress' inability to pass a 2011 budget has held up negotiations over low rate initial production lot 5.
"Until Congress speaks and gives us that direction, our LRIP 5 negotiations will be somewhat delayed," Moore said.
He said he expects the number of aircraft to be "in the 30 range," but said that would likely require "some level of relief" — more money than allowed under the prevailing continuing resolution.
Schwartz also noted problems with the helmet's visor, which is meant to display various flight data and even night-vision images captured by fuselage-mounted cameras.
"The helmet-mounted display has some issues which will need to be addressed, clearly, particularly with an airplane without a head-up display," he said.
Moore said program officials are looking at alternative displays in hopes of using competition to spur contractors into correcting the problems.
Drew Brugal, president of Vision Systems International, which makes the F-35 helmet, said he was not surprised by the generals' comments.
"I also suspect that comments about VSI being a concern will not abate until there is a schedule in place, and we have had more flight and positive comments on the ECP-1 [helmet mounted display] configuration," Brugal said.
But he said his team and Lockheed were working on solutions. VSI plans to add a better magnetic head-tracker and a higher-resolution display, fixes meant to solve problems with jittery images and poor readability, and anticipated problems with night vision.
"We are still working with LM to define an executable schedule that demonstrates a low level of risk in [Lockheed Martin's] eyes. The team is in Fort Worth right now working on this," Brugal said. "I anticipate that once there is a meeting of the minds between [Lockheed Martin] and VSI, the program office will be briefed."
He predicted that criticism would dissipate after the company's plan is presented to the F-35 program office.