A DoD report highlighted a number of issues with all variants of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. ()
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A Defense Department panel warned the Air Force and F-35 Joint Program Office last summer that proceeding with an evaluation of the F-35's pilot training before the stealth fighter jet is combat-ready would yield little useful information, a new report says.
Air Force officials, however, decided to move forward with the evaluation despite the immaturity of the system, sending four pilots through limited flight maneuvers, said Amy Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for Air Education and Training Command.
"In order to support the burgeoning F-35 program, AETC needed to assess the training system at an early stage in order to identify any shortcomings prior to hitting full pilot production," she said. "Valuable data was gained from the [operational utility evaluation], which will better the training system for the future."
The OUE will let the Air Force make any needed corrections before training pilots on a fully combat-capable aircraft, Bartholomew said.
"Our steps today will ease the transition to a more capable platform," she said.
The recommendation to delay the evaluation was among a host of findings by the Defense Department's Office of Testing and Evaluation on the Joint Strike Fighter.
Report Finds Flaws
The report, released Jan. 11, highlighted a number of issues with all variants of the plane.
Among them: flaws in its On-Board Inert Gas Generating System used to prevent a fuel tank explosion in case of a lightning strike. Due to a system flaw, test flights are "not permitted" within 25 miles of known lightning conditions for the fighter nicknamed Lightning II.
A poor design for the fuel tank venting system also means that when the single-engine jet is below 20,000 feet, its descent rate is limited to no more than 6,000 feet per minute.
"Neither restriction is acceptable for combat or combat training," the report said.
Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed Martin's vice president of business development for the Joint Strike Fighter program, said that the company has already begun developing a new OBIGGS to account for this issue, which Lockheed expects to roll out in 2015, with retrofits occurring before then.
"Is it having an impact? Sure, but you have to look holistically," O'Bryan said, citing the increased number of test hours that were flown in 2012 despite the lightning restriction. "We don't expect this to be a major issue."
Lockheed is the prime contractor for the F-35.
DOT&E also reported on cracks that had been discovered, most notably in the F-35B; the removal — to reduce weight — of fire-control systems that increased the "vulnerability" of the jets; and what inspectors saw as delays in training and software implementation.
O'Bryan acknowledged the findings, but reiterated that these were problems the company was aware of and was already handling.
"There's no new information in the report," he said. "We understand [the findings]; we're not taking issue with it, we're just trying to put it in context.
"When you look at the report, the challenges identified are known items and normal discovery you'd find in the flight test program of our size and complexity," O'Bryan added. "This is why we do development testing."
The Pentagon's Joint Program Office declined to answer specific questions about the report, instead issuing a general statement.
"The independent program review by DOT&E is a normal occurrence, and the process was executed with unfettered access to information and the full cooperation of the F-35 Joint Program Office," JPO spokesman Joe DellaVedova wrote.
He added that the program has already acted on most of the recommendations from the report and is reviewing the rest.
Lockheed officials say they already knew about the issues and they're being addressed. The company has laid out an ambitious testing schedule for 2013, one it hopes will continue progress made in the last year.
O'Bryan said the company aims to deliver "over 30 aircraft" in 2013 while completing 1,153 flights and 7,689 test points.
Additionally, the company anticipates delivering F-35A models to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and Block 2A software to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., for training.
The F-35B jump-jet and F-35C carrier variants will undergo 8,000 hours each of durability testing, and all three models will see releases for guided, air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
Last year was not the easiest year for the program. In December, Canada threatened to reconsider its purchase of the jet, joining Italy and Australia as partner nations that considered making cutbacks or deferrals on their purchases. And technical challenges with the software and helmet plagued the JSF throughout the year.
But the program closed 2012 on a high note, reaching a long-awaited deal for a fifth batch of fighters in December and then surprising observers by reaching a preliminary agreement on a sixth buy just before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the DOT&E identified seven issues with the F-35 that need to change before the Air Force can conduct an effective evaluation of pilot training, including:
• high abort rates,
• an excess of maintenance "workarounds" needed to keep the jet flying,
• the lack of a water-activated parachute release system,
• incomplete testing of the ejection system
• low availability rates of the jet at Eglin.
As a result, four pilots flew in the training, with flight maneuvering limited to 5.5 Gs, 550 knots, 18 degrees angle-of-attack and a 39,000-foot envelope.
"[The evaluation] was further constrained by numerous aircraft operating limitations that are not suitable for combat," the report states. "The maintenance environment and support systems are still immature. Sortie generation was dependent on contractor support personnel, maintenance personnel had to use workarounds to accommodate shortfalls in (the Automatic Logistics Information System) and Joint Technical Data was incomplete."
Gen. Edward Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command, approved the operational utility evaluation in December. At the time, he said preliminary results provided by the Air Force's Joint Operational Test Team showed the F-35A and its pilot training and sustainment systems "are robust enough to conduct the planned pilot transition and instructor upgrade courses."
DOT&E will produce an independent report on the Air Force operational utility evaluation in early 2013, the report said.
Pilot training begins
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said Jan. 11 that the F-35 is continuing to mature and, following the completion of the OUE, pilot training at Eglin is beginning this month.
The Pentagon report also said software problems with the F-35 had led to a delay in the jet's flight rate. The F-35A in 2012 accomplished 263 flight sciences test flights out of a planned 279, and a total of 1,338 test points out of a planned 1,923 — a 30 percent drop.
"This was due to delays in software delivery, limited capability in the software when delivered, and regression testing of multiple software versions (required to fix the problems, not add capability)," the report states.
The F-35's software has long been an issue in the progression of the program. A report last March from the Government Accountability Office said the jet has more than 24 million lines of software code, three times that of the F-22 Raptor, which is delaying development of critical mission systems.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the new F-35 program manager, said last fall that software development has fallen 90 to 120 days behind schedule. Lockheed is delivering jets with the Block 2A software, and readying to field Block 2B.
Operational jets will field the complex Block 3 version of the software, and Vice Adm. David Venlet, the previous head of the F-35 program, said this complexity in software development is the biggest issue with delivering the operational capability.
"There's an awful lot of software on this program; it scares the heck out of me," Bogdan said in a September conference. "It's the gorilla in the room."
Congress is forcing the Air Force to publicly outline its track for the F-35 this year. The 2013 National Defense Authorization Act directs the service to establish the initial operational capability date for the F-35A and submit a report on the details of the operational capability by June 1.