An F-35B model is tested in a vertical landing aboard the USS Wasp last August. A government watchdog is warning in a new report that software delays could delay the deployment of the plane. (Lockheed Martin)
WASHINGTON — Software testing delays could slow achievement of operational capability for the F-35 joint strike fighter, according to a new report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).
“Since the F-35 program restructuring was completed in March 2012, acquisition cost and schedule estimates have remained relatively stable, and the program has made progress in key areas,” GAO inspectors concluded. “However, persistent software problems have slowed progress in mission systems flight testing, which is critical to delivering the warfighting capabilities expected by the military services. These persistent delays put the program’s development cost and schedule at risk.”
The GAO’s report touches on concerns raised by the US Defense Department’s Office of Test and Evaluation in its annual report. It warned that deployment of the F-35B, the jump-jet variant built for the US Marine Corps, could be delayed by up to 13 months if software development does not stay on track.
The Marine Corps intends to achieve initial operating capability (IOC) with the Block 2B software in July 2015; the US Air Force is scheduled to follow with its F-35A by December 2016 with Block 3I, which is essentially the same software on more powerful hardware. The US Navy intends to go operational with the F-35C sometime between August 2018 and February 2019, on the Block 3F software.
“[I]f software testing continues to be delayed, if funding falls short of expectations, or if unit cost targets cannot be met, DoD may have to make decisions about whether to proceed with production as planned with less capable aircraft or to alter the production rate,” inspectors wrote.
The report concludes that the secretary of defense should assess the “specific capabilities that realistically can be delivered” for the planes by their respective IOC dates, something with which the F-35 joint program office agreed.
“Software continues to remain our number one technical risk on the program, and we have instituted disciplined systems engineering processes to address the complexity of writing, testing and integrating software,” program head Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan wrote in a statement released by DoD’s F-35 joint program office.
Bogdan noted that his team is still “confident” in delivering the capability on time for the Marines and Air Force, but acknowledged that there is “more risk” to the delivery of the Block 3F software for the Navy planes due to its dependence on the previous software drops.
In public statements last month, Bogdan said his office was tracking development on 3F, but the nature of its dependency on previous developments made it more difficult to project.
“The Joint Program Office values the GAO’s analysis of the F-35 program and we provided them with unfettered access to information,” Bogdan wrote. “There were no surprises in this report and all of the items mentioned were well-known to us, the F-35 international partners and our industry team.”
The GAO report came out the same day the F-35 program added its newest customer, as South Korea announced it will purchase 40 of the fifth-generation jets.
Asked about the report during a call on the South Korean news, Steve O’Brien, Lockheed’s vice president of business development for the F-35, said his company was “focused and confident on delivering” the 2B software to the Marine Corps in 2015.
It has been an up-and-down year for the F-35. The program was largely protected in the Air Force’s budget request for fiscal 2015, with a procurement budget for 26 aircraft that could grow by two more if Congress agrees to fund DoD’s $28 billion so-called wish list of programs. << http://www.defensenews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2014303050019>>
However, politicians in Italy are considering “significantly” cutting their procurement of the jet. Italy has previously reduced its purchase of F-35s to 90 from 131.
In addition, testing revealed cracks in the bulkhead and engine of two ground test models, requiring repairs and delays for those vehicles.■