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Watchdog report: Technology, capability issues still plague F-35

Documents obtained by America Tonight find that the F-35 remains far from suitable for combat

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The bad news for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – the most expensive weapons program in history, with an estimated price tag of $1.4 trillion – continues to pile up.

In a stark new assessment, a Pentagon report documents significant and on-going problems with the F-35 program. America Tonight has obtained a copy of that report in advance of its release.

The findings [PDF], which were made by Dr. J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), include: 

  • Serious deficiencies with the plane’s software & engineering, likely to further delay its suitability for combat.
  • Serious limits on the capability of planes already declared operational.
  • Costly and possibly even illegal flaws in a Pentagon plan to buy 270 additional F-35s.

Overall, says Gilmore, “the rate of deficiency correction has not kept pace with the discovery rate” – in other words, problems with the F-35 are being found faster than they can be fixed.

The DOT&E is an independent Pentagon watchdog, who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, serving as senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense on the evaluation of weapons systems.

Gilmore made the findings in his annual report on the F-35.  

Questioning the Marines

Taking a sharper tone than in previous years, Gilmore’s appraisal is a stark contrast to much of the news coming out of Joint Program Office (JPO), the Pentagon department in charge of the F-35. In July 2015, the Marine Corps declared its version of the plane, the F-35B, operational – an announcement considered the program’s most significant milestone to date. 

Claiming the Marine plane possesses “initial warfighting capability,” the JPO said the F-35B could provide “close air support, air interdiction, and limited suppression/destruction of enemy air defense missions.”

The DOT&E report takes dead aim at that claim. Citing numerous problems, Gilmore concludes the Marine plane has “limited combat capability,” and can’t operate on its own against a serious threat.

“If used in combat,” says Gilmore, the Marine plane, “will need support from command and control elements to avoid threats, assist in target acquisition, and control weapons employment.”

According to Gilmore, those weaknesses largely stem from the current software iteration, or “block,” on which the plane operates. The F-35 is billed as a flying computer, containing more than 8 million lines of code, which act as a form of artificial intelligence. “Blocks” are software suites, which enable the plane to assess the battlespace, identify threats and targets, deploy weapons, and evade the enemy.

The Marine F-35B runs on a software block called “2B,” which Gilmore says contains “hundreds of unresolved deficiencies.”

Gilmore goes on to criticize the Marine Corps on how it went about making the decision to declare its plane operational. In May 2015, the Marines held a series of sea trials aboard the USS Wasp – trials the Marines said were a huge success. 

Gilmore is dismissive, calling those trials merely a “demonstration” – and emphatically stating it was not a real test. Gilmore even implies those trials had to be gamed simply to produce inferior results.

Despite an overreliance on outside contractors and other support unavailable in a real combat environment, he says the Marines still had trouble keeping more than “two to three of the six aircraft in a flyable status on any given day.”

Serious software problems

Two Marine F-35B's aboard the USS Wasp.
Courtesy: Dept. of Defense

This year, the Air Force is slated to declare its version of the plane, the F-35A, operational. The F-35A is expected to run on Block 3i software – a modification of Block 2B. In making those modifications, Gilmore notes, “no capabilities were added … [as such] the combat capabilities of the initial operational Block 3i units will not be noticeably different.”

Other serious technology problems plague the F-35 include: 

  • A lack of “mission data loads,” or information essential for the F-35 software to work properly. Despite being funded by $45 million in 2013, the government lab responsible for creating these files still hasn’t even ordered the equipment to do so.
  • A complete failure to “develop and deliver” the simulators necessary to rehearse combat missions.
  • Poor accuracy and a high false-alarm rate with the plane’s maintenance diagnostic system, known as “ALIS.”
An Air Force F-35A takes off from Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
Courtesy: Dept. of Defense

In a December 2015 memo [PDF], Gilmore previously warned Pentagon officials about the seriousness of the plane’s software problems, adding that efforts to come up with a quick solution could prove disastrous. Any workarounds, he said, would likely mean the testing necessary to certify the F-35 for full-scale production – testing not likely to begin until 2018 – would fail.

When contacted by America Tonight about Gilmore’s concerns, the JPO sent us a copy of a statement by Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of that office. In it, Bogdan admits that, “mission systems software and the ALIS are the program’s top technical risks.” Bogdan called Gilmore’s report “factually accurate,” but said it contains “no surprises,” and “does not fully address program efforts to resolve known technical challenges and schedule risks.”

In a sign of the close relationship between Bogdan’s office and the plane’s contractor, Lockheed Martin, Bogdan’s statement wasn’t posted on a Pentagon website, but instead on Lockheed’s.

A costly mistake?

Despite other problems related to safety and engineering, it’s the F-35’s computer and software problems, which could ultimately prove to be the plane’s most damaging set-back. The sophistication of its software has been its main selling point – and the primary basis of its claim to being a truly superior warplane.

Nonetheless, the Pentagon shows no signs of slowing down, instead proposing a so-called “block buy” of 270 additional F-35’s  – on top of the 150 or so it already has – ostensibly to gain “near-term” savings.

In the long run, Gilmore warns that could be a costly mistake, saying those aircraft “will require a still-to-be-determined list of modifications” to make them truly combat ready. “However, these modifications may be unaffordable … in a fiscally-constrained environment … [resulting] in left-behind aircraft with significant limitations for years to come,” Gilmore wrote.

Ordering 270 more planes may not just be costly, but potentially illegal. Gilmore goes on to cite Title 10 of U.S. Code, which prohibits full-scale production until full operational testing is complete and those results provided to Congress. “Some could argue,” he says, such a large order would constitute “full-rate production.”

An F-35 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Nellis is home to the Air Force’s operational testing.
Courtesy: Dept. of Defense

Safety and structural problems with the F-35 also persist. Chief among them: excessive pressure in an internal fuel tank, which could result in a fire, and cracking in the spars which attach the plane’s wings to the fuselage.

Even some of the DOT&E’s good news isn’t so good.

The program has made progress in keeping its existing F-35’s flying, according to Gilmore, with planes now available 51 percent of the time. That’s up from 37 percent in 2013 and 2014 – but still short of the 60 percent goal.

So far, the F-35 has faced virtually no opposition on Capitol Hill. That’s likely due to the plane’s wide economic footprint. On its website, Lockheed Martin boasts that the F-35 program supports 133,000 jobs, with suppliers in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

The question now is, as the bad news grows, will Congress exercise a tighter rein on the F-35?

In ending his report, Gilmore seems to suggest it should. “Given the state of maturity of the program,” he writes, careful consideration should be given as to whether buying many more F-35s “is consistent with a ‘fly before you buy’ approach to defense acquisition.”

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