Pilots training on the new joint fighter continue to face frustrating limits on the F-35A, ones that will be in place until the fighter undergoes testing that has been delayed and a software update schedule still facing setbacks, Air Force and Defense Department officials said.
Pilots and maintainers at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., have logged more than 2,300 sorties and more than 3,500 flying hours on the fifth generation jets, with more than 23 of the Air Force pilots being fully trained, along with 437 maintainers. Limitations on flying in bad weather and near lightning are still imposed, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said.
“(Pilots) believe this program is moving forward, but they are frustrated by some of the things keeping them from fully utilizing the aircraft,” Welsh said at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing June 19.
The Air Force is requesting $4.5 billion to purchase 19 more F-35A jets in fiscal 2014, but the budget cuts required by sequestration may drop the purchase by three.
The Air Force will stand up its maintenance depot at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, at the end of this fiscal year, and deliver its first aircraft in October. Also that month, the Air Force will announce its primary and preferred bases for the F-35 outside of the continental United States.
As of mid-June, the Air Force has completed more than 46 percent of its test points in more than 1,400 test flights, including flying 700 knots, more than 50,000 feet and at more than 50 degrees angle of attack, Welsh said.
The Defense Department is now negotiating the sixth and seventh block buy of F-35s, meaning that the department will have invested $34 billion for 150 aircraft with half of the testing to still be completed, said Michael Sullivan, the director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.
“This creates risks that problems found during testing will force design changes that will have to be retrofit onto aircraft in production or already delivered, at additional cost to the government,” Sullivan said.
The F-35’s main capabilities are focused on its software, which is made up of about 24 million lines of code. The updates to this software are broken down into “block” updates, with Air Force variants flying Block 2A, or the second variant of the software. Crews at Eglin have begun flying the next upgrade, 2B, which the Air Force will use to declare its initial operating capability in December 2016.
The final software suite, 3F, is expected in 2017 and will let the jet fly with its full weapons systems. But these developments are lagging behind schedule, said Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the head of the Joint Strike Fighter program, who said he is “less than confident” the final 2017 capability will be met.
J. Michael Gilmore, the director of operational test and evaluation in the Defense Department, said the services are still far behind on the testing the initial software capability, block 1. Testing on Block 2A was supposed to be completed in February, but now he expects that won’t be done until between January and August 2014. Testing on 2B won’t be finished until at least December 2014, he said, which could push the F-35 operational capability and deployment dates back.
These delays go back to the beginning of the program, when the department placed unrealistic expectations on the cost and schedule, and now the delays are affecting flights of the jet, he said. Since 2001, the cost of an F-35 doubled from an estimated $69 million to $137 million now.
“Everyone got together in the [defense] department and basically deceived themselves about how hard the job was going to be and how expensive it was going to be,” he said. “And then reality intruded, and reality always wins.”