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Even as the first F-35 Lightning IIs arrive at the training unit at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., the Air Force is preparing for operational testing of the aircraft, said the service's deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
"There are going to be 422[nd Test and Evaluation Squadron] guys flying the F-35 at Edwards [AFB, Calif.,] right away," Lt. Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle said. "As the F-35s are going to Eglin, there's F-35 [operational test pilots]… that are going to Edwards and do Operational Test and Evaluation."
The soon-to-be-activated Edwards detachment will do its initial operational evaluations at the California base, but the remainder of the evaluation will be done by the main body of the 422nd TES at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. One series of tests is planned for the Block 3C software needed for initial operational capability, as well as the preceding software blocks, Carlisle said.
The service, along with the F-35 Joint Program Office, is still working on a Test and Evaluation Master Plan, slated for release in November.
"The JPO is currently estimating Ops Test of Block 2B to commence in early 2015 and complete in early 2016, and the [Operational Test] for Block 3C IOC capabilities to commence in mid-2016 and to end in early 2018," said Air Force spokesman Maj. Chad Steffey.
The service's Air Combat Command has not set a new IOC date for the F-35.
Carlisle said that the F-35 could be a valuable combat asset even with the earlier Block 2B software.
"Block 2B has capability that if the combatant commander needed it, we would deploy it. Would it be IOC? No," he said.
"We in the Air Force designated a set of capabilities to include [Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses], [Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses], air-to-ground and some air-to-air capability that we consider the minimum required for initially operational capable," he said.
He noted that the Air Force has deployed many aircraft that had not yet formally entered service, including the F-15E Strike Eagle, MQ-9 Reaper UAV and the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System surveillance plane.
The F-35 even outpaces its larger twin-engine cousin, the F-22 Raptor, in certain areas, including electronic countermeasures and electronic counter-counter measures. Carlisle also praised the jet's infrared sensors and air-to-ground radar as "phenomenal."
Carlisle said the Raptor retains a huge kinematic advantage "at 51,000 feet and [Mach] 1.7, it's a pretty hard target to hit" but said the F-35 can "take out those [integrated air defense] systems and to penetrate using all of its attributes to the point that it can do incredible damage."
Carlisle said the operating cost of the both the F-22 and F-35 are a major concern. But he said that F-22 operating costs would likely decrease over time. The service is learning how to better maintain the jet's stealth coating, and many lessons have been learned that will carry over to the F-35. Further, he said, while the operating costs estimates for the F-35 are high, they are speculative at this point because there is very little real world data to backup those estimates.
In the meantime, the Air Force has started to seriously look at the capabilities it will need in the jet that replaces the F-22 and F-35.
"We're definitely thinking about a sixth-generation fighter," he said. "But it's 2030-plus."
He said that the U.S. must continue to invest in new technologies.
He said the Chinese and Russians are making slow progress in stealth, a tough technology to master. Neither has yet developed a good pilot vehicle interface, which is an important aspect of building fighters, but is particularly important for stealth aircraft because of the need to manage radar signatures in-flight, Carlisle said.
"They're getting better than they used to be, but they're still a long ways behind us in pilot vehicle interfaces," he said.
Carlisle is a veteran fighter pilot who in his earlier years was part of an elite group of Air Force aggressor pilots selected to fly Russian and Chinese aircraft acquired via various means.
The problem for the United States will be that though the country will continue to lead the world in military technology, other nations will able to match those capabilities far more quickly than in years past due to cyber threats and globalization. Instead of decades at a time, the U.S. edge will last for years at a time but he reiterated that that does not mean the U.S. is falling behind.
"Given the world we live in today," Carlisle said, "My belief is that we'll continue to continually push the technological envelope… I just think that our ability to have that technological advantage will be for a shorter period of time."