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Analysis

The F-35 Program Stalled in 2022

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Mitchell Austin; Photo Illustration: Renzo Velez / POGO)

The F-35 program made little progress in 2022 as it limps toward a full rate production decision, according to information provided by the Pentagon’s top testing official. Designers corrected few problems identified in earlier reports, and still can’t complete a crucial testing simulator.

I have spent the past seven Februarys writing detailed and lengthy analyses of the F-35 chapter in the annual report from the Pentagon’s testing office, the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. I’m not doing that this year because there is so little that’s new to analyze.

That by itself is huge news. The F-35 program should be making significant progress after nearly 22 years of development. We should have heard by now that engineers are applying fixes to the final design flaws as the program approaches the end of operational testing and a full rate production decision.

Instead, the testing office reports that the program continues to be plagued with design flaws, saying that “the overall number of open deficiencies has not significantly decreased” since the official development phase of the program ended nearly five years ago. The testing office did not state the total number of uncorrected design flaws, but Bloomberg reported at the beginning of February that the program still has 831 open deficiencies, a slight decrease from the 864 in early 2022.

Officials still haven’t completed the Joint Simulation Environment, the simulator needed to properly test the F-35’s most complex functions. If the simulator is ever completed (and after seven years of development it is questionable whether or not officials will ever be able to work out all the software issues), it will be used to conduct the final 64 testing missions to find out if the F-35 is capable of operating in the kind of heavily defended airspace a peer adversary is expected to create. The testing office reports that F-35 program officials estimate the validation and verification of the simulator’s software will be complete in time to conduct the tests in August 2023, but cautions that designers will likely discover new problems that would create “additional schedule pressures.” The testing office is essentially saying, in Pentagonese, that we should probably not expect the testing process to be completed in 2023.

The F-35 program should be making significant progress after nearly 22 years of development.

The testing office reported that the F-35 fleet’s monthly availability rate remains “below the target value of 65 percent.” The testing office does not say what the actual figure is. Fortunately, other government agencies do provide such data. The Congressional Budget Office released a report in February 2023 on the availability and use of the F-35. It showed that the availability rates of the three F-35 variants averaged to a little over 55% at the end of 2022. The target rate the Pentagon uses is the mission availability rate, which is calculated by counting aircraft capable of performing at least one of its missions. The budget office correctly noted that a better measure of the fleet’s performance is the full mission availability rate, or the percentage of aircraft capable of performing all of its missions. This is a much better metric for a multi-role program like the F-35. It is easy to see why Pentagon leaders like to use the less stringent standard because, as the budget office points out, the F-35 program only managed a fleet-wide average of approximately 26%.

The F-35 program remains the largest and most expensive weapons program in history. Despite all the time and money invested thus far, program officials still can’t deliver even fractional progress in a year. Members of Congress should take careful note of this, especially when they receive pressure to plus-up the annual buy as they take up the president’s budget request.