The F-35 fighter jet is starting to outlive its reputation as a $428 billion bundle of flawed hardware and buggy software: Lockheed Martin Corp. and the military have eliminated all of the deficiencies believed to endanger pilots and about 90% of other serious flaws that could hamper missions.
That’s down from 111 “Category 1” safety-of-flight and mission-impeding deficiencies in January 2018, according to Defense Department data compiled by the Government Accountability Office.
The improvements may be critical to reassuring lawmakers and U.S. allies buying the F-35 that the costliest U.S. weapons system is worth its price tag, especially as pressure builds to reduce government spending after the response to the Covid-19 pandemic escalates budget deficits. The aircraft is already being operated by forces in the U.S., U.K., Israel, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
The Defense Department’s F-35 program office has “done a good job at working” with the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps “to really prioritize what needs to get fixed versus what would be just a helpful thing to the pilot — getting to the actual things they need to get at,” Jon Ludwigson, the GAO’s top F-35 analyst, said in an interview. He said “they have procedures in place to work around” the remaining flaws.
The last “Category 1A” deficiency that could endanger pilots was deemed corrected in mid-November. Now, Lockheed and the Pentagon are resolving eight remaining “Category 1B” deficiencies that pose a “critical impact on mission readiness.” Five of those are expected to be completed and verified by December, the program office said.
The program office said three of the eight deficiencies carried over into intensive combat testing that began in the late 2018; five emerged since then during separate software testing. The F-35 is a flying computer, with more than 8 million lines of software code.
Results from the combat testing are needed for the Pentagon to make a decision, expected by early 2021, on authorizing Lockheed to ramp up full-rate production. About 520 of a potential 3,200 F-35s for the U.S. and allies already have been delivered and will have to be retrofitted as flaws are fixed.
Brett Ashworth, a spokesman for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed, said in an email that “most of the deficiency reports are enhancements and do not represent a contractual deficiency. However, as with any development effort, additional deficiencies can be identified as new capabilities are developed and delivered.”
The remaining serious deficiencies include excessive pressure in the cabin that could injure pilots’ ears, obscured night-vision camera images under some conditions and limited radar sea-searching capability. The program office anticipates resolving the first two matters next year and the radar issue in 2024.
Despite the progress, Category 1 deficiencies “are serious problems” that “need to be sorted through quickly, and the fact that there are eight still on the list is disappointing,” said John Venable, a Heritage Foundation analyst. Venable, who supports the F-35 program, is a a retired Air Force pilot and has interviewed scores of F-35 pilots.
Given the F-35’s simultaneous development, testing, operations and added technical improvements “it would not surprise me if the number of deficiencies grows,” Venable said.
Beyond the eight most serious outstanding flaws, the F-35 program still faces 860 lesser software and hardware deficiencies, of which 104 are considered fixed but with verification pending. The remainder have a fix under investigation, in the works or are deemed less critical “mission enhancements” that don’t need immediate attention, according to the program office. That’s up from 855 in January 2018. About 85% are software-related.
The open deficiencies “mean there are many things like that that can go wrong, which goes a long way to explain the low full mission-capable rates for the program,” said Dan Grazier, a military analyst for the Project on Government Oversight who tracks the F-35 closely.
“All of us have dealt with computer issues,” he said. “That is just frustrating when you are sitting at a desk,” but “when you are flying close to the speed of sound, trying to locate and track an enemy target, seemingly minor issues like a glitched computer can mean the difference between success and failure.”
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