Pentagon officials have been preparing a misleading assessment of progress on Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35, the costliest U.S. weapons program, the Defense Department’s chief tester warned.
“If not changed, the existing responses would at best be considered misleading and at worst, prevarications,” Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation, wrote in an internal memo criticizing the draft response to questions about F-35 testing from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.
Gilmore challenged passages in the Defense Department’s draft response to McCain that assert:
- The F-35’s development phase is due to end in “early 2018.” Gilmore said the department should “state clearly that development flight testing will not complete — at the earliest” — until mid-2018.
- Operational combat testing that all weapons systems must pass will start in mid-2018 and be completed a year later. Gilmore labeled that “false.” Instead, he said the tests will commence “no sooner than late 2018, or, more likely, in early 2019 but could be as late as 2020.”
- An Air Force certification to lawmakers that F-35s delivered in fiscal 2018 will have full combat capability remains “valid.” Gilmore said that is “highly unlikely” because of delays in testing the critical final version of the plane’s software and correcting 276 pending deficiencies.
Live-fire testing of the jet’s gun system for attacking ground targets and in dogfights against enemy jets faces new delays, Gilmore said. In flights last month, symbols on the helmet display used by pilots to aim air-to-ground attacks were “unusable and unsafe to complete the planned testing.”
The Navy’s version of the plane, the F-35C, also has inadequate wing strength, Gilmore said. Its wingtips aren’t strong enough to carry the AIM-9X short-range air-to-air missile, a primary weapon, at some altitudes and airspeeds. Testing on a fix is under way.
“This is a serious deficiency that would have restricted” F-35C flight with the missile, Army Major Roger Cabiness, Gilmore’s spokesman, said in an e-mail. The initial defect reports on the structural weaknesses surfaced in 2013 “so the Navy is not just learning about it, but the proposed fixes are just now being implemented,” Cabiness said.
In addition, “excessive F-35 vertical oscillations,” or shaking, in catapult launches from aircraft carriers must be resolved, Gilmore said.
The Navy has identified the shaking as a “must-fix deficiency’’ but “the program waited so long to take action that it is unlikely a solution can be implemented within” the development phase “unless a quick fix is developed soon,” Cabiness said