As the F-35 program limps toward the end of its much-delayed operational testing period and subsequent full-rate production decision, unanswered questions about its combat effectiveness and suitability for service within the fleet remain. The Pentagon weapons testing office’s 2019 annual report, released earlier this year, paints a picture of an incompletely designed and vulnerable aircraft that may never be able to perform many of its intended functions.
The director of operational test and evaluation’s (DOT&E) report includes the following lowlights:
- The gun for the Air Force’s version not only can’t shoot straight, but breaks the aircraft when fired.
- There have been no appreciable improvements in the program’s overall reliability since 2016.
- The entire F-35 system remains vulnerable to cyber threats.
- The simulation facility necessary to fully test the aircraft and train pilots remains unfinished.
As the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) recently reported, a previously confidential document produced by the F-35 program office plotted out the still-growing number of design flaws it was grappling with as of February 28, 2020. As the program approaches a full-rate production decision, the total number of reported unresolved design flaws has increased by 10, up from the total reported by the testing office in January—a time when the total number of flaws should be decreasing.
The F-35 Joint Program Office did not respond to comments for this report.
Unaddressed Design Flaws Adding Risk
The services set lofty goals for the F-35 program at its 2001 inception. The program established 536 performance specifications for the functional requirements of the aircraft and its components. As of September 17, 2019, the program had satisfied only 493 of them.
The latest testing report on the F-35 shows there hasn’t been appreciable improvement in the program’s overall reliability since 2016.
The program office is expected to formally revise the original contract with Lockheed Martin before the full-rate production decision to delete some of the requirements and complete the rest of the work during later development projects. The testing office’s report does not include a full list of the unmet goals, but mentioned that the aircraft is falling short of the airframe durability standards. That means the aircraft are unlikely to last as long as planned, and readiness will be negatively impacted by the failure to build an effective logistics and maintenance network. The testing office reports that many of the unmet goals may never be achieved or will only be reached during later development projects.
Despite the Pentagon’s self-congratulatory declaration in 2018 that the program had completed its troubled development process, the testing office reports that in fact the development phase contract “may take years to complete.” Meanwhile, pilots today are dealing with a problem-ridden aircraft that requires them to work around faulty components that, according to DOT&E, “may be observed from both operational testing and fielded operations.” Translation: U.S. pilots will take underdeveloped and glitchy aircraft into combat for the foreseeable future.
In addition to the requirements that have not been—and possibly will not be—met, the program is still plagued by hundreds of unresolved design flaws. The Pentagon calls these design flaws “deficiencies,” and as of the release of the annual testing report, the F-35 program had 873. Most were identified prior to the declared end of the program’s development phase—officially known as system development and demonstration—providing more evidence of just how premature the decision to end that phase was.
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