Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Exclusive: F-35 Program Facing Another Setback

Pentagon’s Testing Director Says Program Not Ready for Combat Testing
(U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Marleah Robertson)

The troubled $1.5 trillion F-35 program is not ready to begin the critical combat-testing phase, the Pentagon’s testing director said in a previously undisclosed August memo obtained by the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). That decision marks another setback in the development of the Pentagon’s largest acquisition program.

The memo, issued on August 24, 2018, says the program has not met the necessary entry criteria to begin the crucial combat-testing phase called Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E). It comes on the heels of the revelation, reported first by POGO, that program officials have been trying to make it appear as though the program has completed the development phase, by altering paperwork to reclassify potentially life-threatening design flaws to give the appearance of progress rather than actually fixing them.

Decisions about full-rate production and combat testing should be based on performance, not merely predetermined schedules.

IOT&E is the last legal hurdle an acquisition program must surmount before it can enter full-rate production. Per federal law, this process cannot begin until the director of operational test and evaluation approves in writing that the program has met all the necessary criteria to execute the agreed-upon testing program.

Robert Behler, the director of operational test and evaluation, is delaying IOT&E until the program addresses several software issues. Behler writes that operational testing cannot begin until the program updates versions of the F-35’s operating software, mission-data files, Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), and testing range infrastructure software.

While it is not clear from the memo which specific problems remain to be resolved, previous testing reports found “key technical deficiencies in the ability of the F-35 to employ the AIM-120 weapons” (the principle air-to-air missile) and an “uncharacterized bias toward long and right of the target” when pilots fire the aircraft’s cannon, resulting in them “consistently missing ground targets during strafe testing.”

A U.S. Air Force weapons load crew loads a live AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile into an F-35A January 31, 2017, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Peter Thompson)

The next version of the F-35’s operating software, Behler writes, should add to the aircraft’s capabilities to ensure it can perform several key combat missions including strategic attack, air interdiction, offensive counter air, and electronic attack. The aircraft’s Mission Data Loads are large files of maps, threat electronic signals, data on potential enemy weapons, as well as friendly systems to enable the F-35’s sensors to sort friend from foe. ALIS is the much-troubled maintenance and logistics network that combines embedded diagnostics functions, supply chain management, and maintenance guidance. Previous testing found that most ALIS functions work only with “a high level of manual effort by ALIS administrators and maintenance personnel.”

The services and program officials had previously set September 15, 2018, as the deadline to begin IOT&E. Behler, in the face of undoubtedly enormous pressure to stick to that schedule, has delayed the start date by approximately two months, when the updated software versions are expected to be delivered.

This is an example of an important government oversight office working precisely as intended. Congress created the Pentagon’s operational testing office in 1983 to ensure lawmakers received accurate information about the performance of new weapon systems. Before the creation of the office, any testing data Members of Congress received had been filtered through the very bureaucracies that had vested interests in making sure nothing stood in the way of a weapon system reaching full-rate production.

Decisions about full-rate production and combat testing should be based on performance, not merely predetermined schedules. Testing planes with software and systems that won’t be in the aircraft when it’s delivered to the services would be wasteful, and delivering systems that haven’t been combat-tested would put pilots’ lives at risk. We’re glad to see the director of operational test and evaluation is putting service members ahead of contractors.