Why the Marine Corps Is Rushing to Deploy an Imperfect Combat Aircraft

By Sandra I. Erwin

The biggest story this year so far in the F-35 joint strike fighter world is not the soaring cost of the aircraft — a problem that appears to have been contained, according to the program manager — but the determination of the Marine Corps to put the aircraft into service even though its mission software is unfinished and cracks surfaced in one of its main bulkheads.

None of these issues is serious enough to deter the Marine Corps from declaring the F-35B — the short-takeoff vertical landing version of the joint strike fighter — ready for combat use. Marines insist that they would much rather take an incomplete F-35B than continue to fly their antiquated fighters.

The F-35B would eventually replace all AV-8B Harriers, F/A-18 Hornets and the EA-6B Prowlers. One of the shortfalls in the new airplane is that its mission software, called Block 2B, is still not able to perform “sensor fusion” functions that allow pilots to identify targets and share the data across a network of multiple F-35s. Fusion is one of the attributes that distinguish “fifth generation” fighters like the F-35 from older models developed during the Cold War.

The Marine Corps intends to start flying the F-35B in combat duties some time in July, a milestone called “initial operational capability,” or IOC. This move has been criticized by Pentagon weapon testers who frown on military programs that rush to meet self-imposed deadlines. The Defense Department’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation J. Michael Gilmore cautioned in his 2014 annual report that the F-35B mission software will be delivered with “troubling capability shortfalls.”

The full-blown F-35 mission software would not come until 2017, but the Marine Corps is looking at this in perspective: A less-than-optimum F-35B is still far more desirable than what they have now.
“The Block 2B software configuration that the Marine Corps will IOC with brings an immediate increase in combat capability compared to legacy aircraft,” said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Paul Greenberg. “Most of the deficiencies we track are deficiencies when compared to the F-35’s full combat capability in 2017.”

What matters, he said, is whether the aircraft can meet the basic needs of Marines at war, he said. In its current state, the F-35B can launch missiles, engage other aircraft in dogfights and drop bombs. “At IOC the F-35 will be able to target in real time, talk to forward air controllers over the radio and data-link, put weapons on target and do all of that in contested environments and in bad weather,” Greenberg said. The electronic attack features of the current F-35B, he added, represent a “transformation in electronic warfare spectrum management, and this is not possible with legacy aircraft.”

The officer who oversees the F-35 program on behalf of the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force said he is not bothered by the Marines’ decision to declare IOC much earlier than the other services. The Air Force is aiming for 2016 IOC and the Navy is eyeing 2019.

“It’s their call, and I support them on this,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, the program executive officer.

Bogdan said the Block 2B software development was finished in February — four months after its original October 2014 deadline — but there are still glitches to be fixed over the course of this year. The next version, Block 3i for the Air Force, is scheduled for completion in 2016, and the one the Navy is waiting for, Block 3F, would be ready in 2018. F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin stands to lose $300 million in incentive fees if those deadlines aren’t met.

The software that will be delivered to the Marines in June is “good enough for IOC” and the Marines understand its limitations, Bogdan said March 24 during a meeting with reporters.

Software in general “always has been the number-one technical issue on this program. And always will be,” Bogdan said. The highly computerized aircraft runs on eight million lines of code. Much of that software manages the basic functions of the aircraft, such as flight controls, valves, fuel systems and radars. That software is working as intended, or the airplane would be unsafe to fly. The issues are with the so-called “fusion engine” that was designed to create a unified picture of the potential threats in the airspace so multiple F-35s can fight as a single information network.

The fusion engine combines the input from the F-35 sensors — radar, electro-optical targeting system and distributed aperture system — to create a single track on the location of enemy targets in the air and on the ground. The data then is shared across the network. The software today cannot display accurate data to more than two aircraft at a time. “Fusion is by far the most complicated and, in my mind, worrisome element of this program,” Bogdan said.

When four F-35s flew during a test exercise in recent months, the fusion engine created a confusing and inaccurate picture. Instead of identifying an air-defense missile battery on the ground, the software would “see” double or misread the location. “What we found is that when you have more than one F-35 looking at the same threat, they don’t all see it the same,” Bogdan said. “When there’s a slight difference, the fusion model can’t decide if it’s one or more threats.”
The fusion algorithms have to be tweaked, and that could take months. “This is not something you can test in a lab,” Bogdan said.

Marines are not losing sleep over this, at least not for now. They have come up with “workarounds” so they can use the F-35B in close-air support and air-to-air combat missions. “There are ways in which, with the software we have, pilots can work around those problems,” Bogdan said. One option is to only use certain sensors and turn off others. Targeting data would have to be acquired individually by each pilot instead of sharing it across the network. Pilot workload would increase.

Bogdan insisted that the glitches will be fixed, but he would back the Marines if they chose to delay IOC between now and July. “The aircraft will be able to do everything the Marine Corps needs it to do for IOC, it just require pilots to do workarounds.”

With just three months to go before IOC, there are other unresolved issues that Marines hope will be handled on time.

One is simply having enough production-quality airplanes to equip the first Marine Corps operational squadron MFA-121 based in Yuma, Arizona. To date, only two of the required 10 aircraft have been equipped for combat. The Marine Corps currently owns a total of 32 F-35Bs but most are test aircraft so they would not be suitable for combat.

Training also is a concern. Pilots need time to train in simulators that must have the same software as IOC airplanes. The simulators are expected to receive upgraded software over the next six weeks, Bogdan said. “We think we’ll be ok.” Another requirement for IOC planes is to have files uploaded to its computers containing important data about global threats. The “mission data files” are in the works at Air Force Air Combat Command, in Langley, Virginia. “They’ll get there in July, but it’s really tight,” said Bogdan.

Marines also will need to rush their aircraft technicians through training on the F-35 maintenance system, known as ALIS, or autonomic logistics information system. The system is not yet mature and it has to be shrunk in size to make it more transportable. “We squeezed racks into a two-man deployable ALIS,” Bogdan said. “The software had to be modified.” Maintainers have to start training 90 days in advance of IOC, and ALIS will miss that deadline by about a month. To make up the time, Marine maintainers at Yuma will spend several weeks at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Orlando, Florida, where there is a prototype ALIS system for them to train.

“We know how to do ALIS. It’s just going to take us a lot longer than we thought,” Bogdan said.

On aircraft reliability — a measure of how long airplanes fly before they need repairs — the Marine Corps B model is the worst of the three. “The A and C models today are very close to where they’re supposed to be,” Bogdan said. “We still got some work to do on the B model.”

A potentially troubling flaw in the F-35B is in the structure, although Bogdan believes it is manageable. “I’m worried about bulkhead cracks on the B model,” he said. Based on test results, cracks develop after 4,000 to 5,000 hours of flight. The airplanes the Marines would fly this year only have a few hundred hours on them, so they would not be at risk, Bodgan said. The fact that cracks were found is not necessarily bad news, he added. “If you didn’t have cracks, you didn’t set up your test right. You want to know where the airplanes will break first.”

The Marine version has problems stemming from a major redesign of the airframe started in 2005 after it was determined the airplane was 3,000 pounds overweight. Five titanium bulkheads — including the major load-bearing structure in the center of the fuselage — were replaced with lighter aluminum components. “Some of that, unfortunately, is coming back to bite us now,” Bogdan said. “What we thought was a good engineering judgment back then, now we have issues.” There will be modifications to the airplane to address this problem, and the entire fleet eventually will have to be retrofitted.

Another hiccup in the F-35B have been the tires. An aircraft that takes off from short runways and lands vertically requires tires with enough bounce but also must be sufficiently rugged to maintain their form in 170 mph takeoffs. “We have been working hard to find the right balance between float and durability for vertical takeoff,” Bogdan said. “Our fourth tire is now in test. It appears to be working better than any of the others.” Tire manufacturer Dunlop has had difficulties producing the correct specs, he added, “But we’re moving in the right direction.”

Amid these technical setbacks, the Marines can at least breathe a sigh of relief that the cost of the F-35B is finally coming down. Between production lots 6 and 8 over the past two years, Bogdan said, the price of the B model has slipped from $145 million to $134 million. In its unofficial “wish list” sent to Congress, the Marine Corps requested $1 billion for six additional F-35Bs. The budget request for fiscal year 2016 includes funding for nine aircraft.

Marine officials recently have somewhat softened their stance on a July IOC, suggesting that it is not a hard deadline.

“We won’t declare IOC unless we meet all of our targets,” Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 25.

The F-35B with the current software provides “tremendous capability that we don’t have today,” Davis insisted. “I have no fusion in the airplanes I operate today.” The pilots who fly it today “love the F-35B and they wouldn’t go back to their original platforms.”

On the software, Davis said he would withhold judgment for now. If the squadron is not ready to declare IOC, he said, the Marine Corps will respect that. “The decision to declare IOC will be event-based and conditions-based, based on us achieving what we have to do to deliver a combat capability to our Marines,” he said. “If conditions are met, I will make a recommendation to [Commandant] General Dunford that we declare our IOC.”

Photo: An F-35B aircraft flies at Edwards Air Force base (Lockheed Martin)

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