POGO, or the Project On Government Oversight, has released an in-depth summary of a report by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) on the F-35 program, and although the DOT&E report is full of technical language, the overall summary is bad news for the F-35.
The DOT&E Report (which you can download as a .PDF file at the bottom of this article) gives several problem areas with the F-35 and the F-35 program as a whole, and suggests that any major purchase of the aircraft before 2022 may be premature.
Some of the concerns highlighted in the report include
- The end of testing the USMC F-35B's Block 2B software to declare Initial Operating Capability (IOC), despite the very limited combat capability of the 2B software. Additionally, the next iteration of software, Block 3i, may still not meet USAF IOC.
- The final software version, Block 3F, will not be available by August 2017.
- A block buy of up to 270 aircraft - to save manufacturing costs - has been proposed, but the commitment for this purchase may happen before operational testing is complete.
- Only 12 out of 15 weapons delivery tests were completed, but of those 12, 11 "required intervention...to overcome system deficiencies and ensure a successful event".
- In order to complete testing of all the planned F-35 weaponry, the program needs to triple its testing rate. The program's goal for completion is May, 2017. These weapons require the Block 3F software, which likely won't be available for testing to even begin in time.
- The support and maintenance relies heavily on contractor support, that will be difficult or impossible to maintain in a combat environment.
- Although the USMC conducted successful tests aboard the USS Wasp, these were not operation tests, and functioned under some extraordinary circumstance.
- Pilots under a certain wait could risk fatal injuries during ejection.
- Mock dogfights with an F-16 showed a lack of maneuverability.
- The Verification Simulation (VSim) has been reassigned to the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), since progress by outside contractors had been slow to non-existent, despite an extra $250 million in funding in 2010.
- While operational sustainability has improved over the years, it is still below where it should be. Aircraft availability was 51% (the goal was 60%), 8 of 9 measures of reliability are still below target values (but two of those are within 5%), F-35 aircraft spent 21% more time than intended waiting for maintenance (upgrades or modifications), and 51% longer waiting for parts than intended.
- Concurrency - or the practice of producing operational aircraft before finalizing the aircraft design and completing development - means that the current fleet F-35s still must return to facilities to receive upgrades or maintenance, some of these due to faults in the original design. This "concurrency tax" is likely to grow, as the final design is not expected before 2017 - by which time about 200 aircraft may have been delivered.
These aren't the only problems with the F-35, and some of the testing has actually gone well. However, if the Pentagon has to make concessions and modifications to tests to help the F-35 pass, how will it fair in a hostile environment when no such concessions will be made?
You can download the entire DOT&E report below, and read POGO's take on it right here.