The F-35 fighter jet program is almost 18 years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s reached full maturity yet. In fact, Dan Grazier, the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, said the current numbers aren’t looking good.
“Right now, we are on the cusp of the Pentagon making the full rate production decision with the program. It’s currently in the initial operational testing evaluation process,” Grazier said on Agency in Focus: Air Force. “And the information that I received here about a week and a half ago is that the operational test fleet is not performing as well as it needs to be in order to successfully complete that process.”
An operational test fleet is a group of vehicles being tested to see if the aircraft is combat capable, but also suitable for operations in the hands of actual warfighters. In the current F-35 operational test fleet, there are six F-35As (Army), six F-35Bs (Marine Corps), six F-35Cs (Navy), and five aircraft from the British and Dutch fleets, for a total of 23 aircraft currently being tested at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
This testing involves a series of scenarios that the aircraft are put through, both in real-world flights and in simulators. They can range from one- or two-plane combat patrols to multi-plane scenarios pitting them against anti-aircraft systems and radars deep in enemy airspace. Simulators are used when there isn’t enough space to replicate a real-world scenario, but also to test things like the autonomic logistics information system, which supports the F-35.
“I acquired a chart that was part of a brief within the Joint Program Office, and it shows the readiness figures for the Operational Test lead out at Edwards Air Force Base,” Grazier said. “And it shows that the fleet as a whole, from December — when the testing process began — until late July, the fleet has managed a fully mission-capable rate of just 11%.”
The mission-capable rate means that’s how many planes in a fleet are capable of performing every mission assigned to them. And since the F-35 is a multi-mission aircraft, it has more missions it needs to be able to accomplish.
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“So an 11% fully mission capable rate, it sounds bad on the surface,” Grazier said. “But the operational testing director in the past has said that the program needs to have an 80% availability rate in order to successfully complete the schedule of events for operational testing. So we are far, far below that at this point in order to successfully complete that process.”
Grazier said one of the largest culprits in this low rate is the distributed aperture system, which feeds imagery into the $400,000 helmet from cameras mounted on the outside of the plane, allowing the pilot to see the plane’s surroundings unimpeded in 360 degrees. It also has forward-looking radar systems to detect ground targets.
But the system frequently fails, Grazier said. And when that happens, the plane downgrades to partially mission capable. Which mean the plane can still fly, land and fight, but it can’t accomplish all of its intended missions.
“The services have said again and again that they’re aware of all these issues, and that they’re working to fix them. But having studied this program now very intensely for more than four years, I don’t see a lot of progress in just the data that we receive in public,” Grazier said. “And in fact, some of the data is actually worse. And from the sources that I have that are involved, they tell me that these problems are getting worse and that there is not a solid path forward to correct some of the very fundamental systemic issues. They’re going to plague the F 35 program forever.”