[WASHINGTON] A week after the Air Force declared its version of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 jet ready for limited combat operations, the Pentagon's top tester warned that the US military's costliest weapons program is still riddled with deficiencies.
"In fact the program is actually not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver" the aircraft's full capabilities, "for which the Department is paying almost US$400 billion by the scheduled end" of its development in 2018, Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department's director of operational testing, said in an Aug 9 memo obtained by Bloomberg News.
"Achieving full combat capability with the Joint Strike Fighter is at substantial risk" of not occurring before development is supposed to end and realistic combat testing begins, he said of the F-35.
The memo provides a timely reminder of an issue that the next president and defense secretary will inherit. They are scheduled to decide in 2019 whether to let the fighter jet move into full production, the most lucrative phase for Lockheed, the biggest US defense contractor.
It's also an issue for US allies that have committed to buy the plane, including the UK, Italy, Australia, Japan and Israel.
The Air Force made its declaration of initial combat capability on Aug 2, but "most of the limitations" previously identified with software, data fusion, electronic warfare and weapons employment continue, Mr Gilmore wrote.
The program "is running out of time and money to complete the planned flight testing and implement the required fixes and modifications" needed to finish the phase successfully, he said.
"Flight testing is making progress but has fallen far behind the planned rate." The most complex software capabilities "are just being added" and new problems requiring fixes and verification testing "continue to be discovered at a substantial rate," Mr Gilmore wrote to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James; General David Goldfein, the service's chief of staff; and Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's acquisitions chief.
During a meeting with reporters in Singapore on Wednesday, Ms James said the F-35 has "reached the point of initial combat capability, so that's what we said we were going to have by now and we've got it. But 'initial 'means initial and over the next several years it's going to continue to develop, and the word 'develop' is an important word too."
"If you go back over the entire history of the F-35 there is no question that over that history it's taken longer and it has cost more money than originally anticipated but that is part and parcel of a development program," she said.
While Ms James said she wouldn't be "at all surprised to see it deployed somewhere in the world over the next year or so," Mr Gilmore wrote in the memo that the F-35 could serve in combat today only if it was accompanied by older aircraft that would provide support to "locate and avoid modern threats, acquire targets and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to outstanding performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage."
Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the Defense Department's F-35 program office, said in an e-mail "there were absolutely no surprises" in the memo as "all of the issues mentioned are well-known" and being resolved. Lockheed spokesman Mike Rein didn't immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
Mr Gilmore cited at least 15 capabilities in the F-35's most advanced software, known as 3F, that either have unresolved deficiencies or aren't ready for testing. These include capabilities to process warnings of enemy ground and airborne radar signals that spot the fighter, to track moving targets on the ground, to share imagery between aircraft and to make use of the new Small Diameter Bomb.
In addition, all three models of the F-35 are "are at risk of not having a functioning and accurate gun" in time for the combat testing because "significant deficiencies discovered during initial testing" in 2015 "require multiple modifications" before accuracy testing can begin, he said.