By Tony Capaccio
The Trump administration should “rigorously and comprehensively review” Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet, the Pentagon’s costliest program, the Defense Department’s director of combat testing said.
Michael Gilmore, who will leave the post as testing director when Donald Trump takes office as president next week, cited the fighter’s “significant, well-documented deficiencies in critical combat capabilities” in a letter Monday to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, who’s a strong supporter of the F-35.
While Trump has tweeted that “the F-35 program and cost is out of control,” Pentagon officials say the plane is now essentially on schedule and close to its budget after earlier problems. But Gilmore focused on unresolved performance issues in the current $55 billion development phase. These must be resolved before the aircraft can enter intense combat testing and the eventual deployment later this decade of fully capable combat jets.
The Defense Department’s F-35 program office “has no plan to adequately fix and verify hundreds of these deficiencies using flight testing within its currently planned schedule and resources,” Gilmore wrote. Deploying F-35s “with capable mission systems is critical to our national security,” but the program now “is at high risk of sacrificing essential combat performance,” he added.
The Pentagon’s office of independent cost analysis estimates that extending the development phase from its planned test flight completion in September 2017 to as late as 2020 could cost as much as $1.12 billion more. The number is contained in the testing director’s new annual report delivered to Pentagon leaders and lawmakers late Monday.
The program office has said completing the phase will require about $530 million extra and acknowledges it may slip to May 2018.
Gilmore’s annual report contains a 62-page assessment of the program that’s a detailed primer for the incoming administration on deficiencies that include software, weapons accuracy, aircraft-carrier launching, the diagnostic system and reliability.
The military services have “designated 276 deficiencies in combat performance as ‘critical to correct’” in the final version of the “3F” software that gives the aircraft its full combat capability. “But less than half of the critical deficiencies were addressed with attempted corrections” so far, Gilmore wrote in his report.
The Trump administration may consider the report as it assesses the F-35 program. Under current plans, the U.S. is scheduled to increase purchases of the jet in the fiscal year 2018 budget to 70 from 63 this year. Then, the number is grow to 80 in fiscal 2019. There’s also a pending “block buy” of 450 aircraft in the coming years as the Pentagon seeks a total fleet of 2,443, including 1,763 for the Air Force.
Gilmore labeled as “unrealistic” the Pentagon program office’s estimate that it can complete the development phase for $530 million.
The Pentagon’s approach “guarantees the program will attempt a premature” termination of “mission systems testing, which will increase the risk of mission failures” once the aircraft enters the one-year phase of intense combat testing “and more importantly, if the F-35 is used in combat,” Gilmore wrote.
It’s this combat testing that provides “the most credible means to predict combat performance,” and under the latest projections “will not complete until at best” by December 2019 “and more likely later” into 2020, Gilmore wrote. The testing is currently scheduled to start in August.
The delay in combat testing has a cascading impact and will delay by as much as a year a Pentagon decision to approve the aircraft for full-rate production — the most lucrative phase for Lockheed — from the planned April 2019 into 2020, Gilmore wrote.
One of the longest-running, most vexing unresolved deficiencies surfaced in November 2014, Gilmore wrote. It involves the vibration Navy pilots experience during catapult launches of the F-35C model from aircraft carriers. Test pilots found excessive “vertical oscillations.” The Navy plans to declare that its aircraft possesses an initial combat capability starting in February 2019 .
“The deficiencies were considered acceptable for continued development testing,” Gilmore wrote. But test pilots have reported the shaking was “so severe that they could not read flight-critical data, an unacceptable and unsafe situation during a critical phase of flight,” he wrote.