Important Tests Loom for Navy and Marine Corps F-35

Valerie Insinna

The Navy and Marine Corps variants of the joint strike fighter have an eventful year ahead, and program officials are saddled with a long list of work to do before major milestones in the summer.

The Marine Corps’ F-35B is planned to be introduced to the fleet on July 1, the first of the expensive, controversial joint strike fighter variants to achieve initial operating capability. Stakeholders are watching closely to see if the military will be able to meet its target date on schedule, as well as whether the jet’s performance will help vindicate the massive cost of acquiring it.

Meanwhile, the Navy’s F-35C will undergo its second round of sea trials aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, another big step toward readying the platform for fielding in 2018.

Program managers from both the military and F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin said they were under pressure to move quickly in order to meet schedule demands without putting the program at risk.

“You want to be able to run as fast as you can, but in running fast, you don’t want to make mistakes, because mistakes will set you back much further than if you had been going slowly,” said Art Tomassetti, Lockheed Martin’s program manager for the B-variant and a former Marine Corps colonel.

The military’s F-35 program manager, Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, believes the joint program office will be able to meet its July deadline for the Marine Corps’ initial operating capability, he told reporters in October. But there’s much to be done before then.

“July 1, 2015 is a tough date to hit. We’ve got a lot of risks that we’re trying to manage and get through,” he said.

If schedule slips push back the IOC date, it will be a delay of days or weeks, he added. “There’s no way in the world we’re missing that by months. It’s not going to happen.”

Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said he has little doubt that the Marine Corps will deploy its initial aircraft on schedule.

“They’re going to bust their behinds to try to make it for a couple reasons,” he said. “There’s so much tension. The program has been so controversial. But the Marines are really committed to it, and I also think they know that the B-variant is going to end up being a really big deal. … When that thing goes into service, people are going to learn to love it.”

Even if the program office makes its projected IOC on schedule, that title is only “cosmetic,” as the joint strike fighter will not be ready to be deployed in combat, said Winslow Wheeler, an F-35 critic and director of the Strauss Military Reform Project of the Project on Government Oversight.

“Before the F-35, weapons were typically never declared initially operationally capable until after the first round of operational testing. For the F-35, that will be 2019,” he said. “If you look at the details of what the Marines plan to have next December, it’s not an operationally capable airplane.”

Wheeler pointed to the fighter’s weapons systems, many of which will not be online until years after the Marine Corps declares IOC. The F-35’s small diameter bomb II, manufactured by Raytheon, will not be integrated onto the plane until 2020. Its 25 mm Gatling gun — which will be externally mounted on the Navy and Marine Corps variants — as well as the Block 3F software necessary to fire it also will not be available until at least 2017.

That’s beside the point, contended Donnelly. The Marine Corps and Navy have many ways of taking down a target. What they need is a platform capable of penetrating enemy air defenses.
“Who cares about the gun?” he said. “I think this is going to end up being employed much less as a strike platform and more as, basically, an armed scout that’s stealthy and very operationally flexible.”

There are three primary obstacles putting pressure on the program office to meet its target date, Bogdan said. The Marine Corps needs 10 planes in a war-fighting configuration to declare initial operating capability, and making those modifications is “not easy,” he said. “We have to get that done.”

Five of those jets are currently undergoing the work necessary to be configured for operations, Tomassetti said. The remaining planes have yet to be modified.

The process to modify a plane can take anywhere from two to four months, he said. The jet in need of the most extensive upgrades will require up to 60 modifications, half of which replace components in the plane with ones that have improved service lives.

The others augment the fighter’s operational capabilities, he said. “They either affect how fast it can fly, [or] they affect whether or not it can do STOVL [short takeoff and vertical landing] operations. They affect how it flies at night.” About 10 of the modifications will allow the Marine Corps to fly the planes in lightning, which is currently prohibited.

Lockheed provides modification kits as well as instructions on how to properly execute the upgrades, but the service will carry out most of the work at the Fleet Readiness Center East in Cherry Point, North Carolina, he said.

The program office is also striving to finish the “mission data files” — location and threat information stored within the plane’s computers — for two regions, another prerequisite for operational deployment, Bogdan said.

“We have no problem getting the first one ready and done by July,” he said. “But the same guys that are doing the one area are also doing the second area, and there’s some schedule pressure on getting that second mission data file done by July of 2015.”

Yet another barrier stems from the engine problems discovered last June, when a jet caught fire during a training flight. The incident resulted in the U.S. military grounding its F-35 fleet and canceling the plane’s international debut at events such as the Farnborough Air Show and Royal International Air Tattoo in the United Kingdom.

Not only did that heighten public scrutiny of the program, it delayed flight testing by 45 days.
“I thought I was going to be done on the 10th of December with all flight testing … I’m now projecting that date to be around 30 January,” Bogdan said. That puts pressure on certifying that the fighter is capable of flying its full flight envelope because those 45 days would have acted as a buffer in case more data needed to be collected.

Those tests also are vital for validating the 2B software to be installed on the 10 Marine Corps planes slated for fielding in July, Tomassetti said. Software installation was originally scheduled for November, but is now planned to begin in February.

The Marine Corps will need the 2B software to deploy the F-35 in combat. Without it, the joint strike fighter cannot release its internally-stored weapons, he said.

“More than giving you brand new capabilities, it gives you depth in some of the capability that already exists. It allows additional capabilities in the radar and some of the other sensors in the airplane,” as well as in its data links, he said.

But before the Marine Corps can install 2B and use some of the software’s new features, it must finish flight testing the newest version of the F-35’s logistics and maintenance program and deliver it to the operational fleet, Tomassetti said. Although operators and maintainers can run an old version of the autonomic logistics information system, or ALIS, with 2B software, ALIS 2.0 enables diagnostic capabilities not available with the earlier system. ALIS 2.0 began flight tests last year at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

“Some of the mission planning stuff, because you have new capabilities in 2B, you need a new ALIS version to really take advantage of that,” he said. “It allows us to really maximize what you really get with the 2B software loaded in the airplane.”

A smaller, 200-pound ALIS system capable of being carried by a deployed Marine squadron will also be made available to the service for IOC in July, he said.

The Marine Corps is not the only sea service with major F-35 milestones on the horizon. Although the Navy will be the last service to field the platform, officials are under pressure to ready the C-model for sea trials aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in August, said Jim Gigliotti, Lockheed’s F-35C program manager. Last November, the fighter completed its first round of carrier-based testing aboard the USS Nimitz three days ahead of schedule, with test pilots executing 124 catapults, 222 touch-and-go landings and 124 arrested landings, according to Navy information.

“We have to do a significant amount of build up yet again for our next carrier evolution,” Gigliotti said. “That will involve expanded envelopes of the aircraft, as well as now we’re going to start carrying internal weapons.”

To expand the jet’s flight envelope, Lockheed and the joint program office will fly the aircraft in non-conformal conditions, such as high angles of attack, high gravity and with a wet runway. It also will test different weapons configurations, including externally stored munitions, and validate that the F-35 can release weapons safely in various conditions, he said.

Donnelly, an F-35 defender, said it will take four or five years after IOC for the services to understand what the F-35 can bring to the table and how to best use it.

“I predict that, in a few years, instead of a president asking where the carriers are or how many B-2s he can get up … the go to crisis response force will be Marine Corps [amphibious ships] with F-35s on them,” he said.

Wheeler is not convinced. The reasons why the military is fielding the F-35 before operational testing are political, he said. Service leaders “know [the program] has gigantic problems, and they want people to leave them alone and not kill it.”

It is likely the Defense Department will be successful in keeping the F-35 from being canceled, he added, but the incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been known to speak out against Pentagon overspending and could put pressure on the program to meet schedule and cost targets.

“It’s time for him to translate his words into action. We will see if he does,” Wheeler said. “He’s been all over the lot on the F-35. He’s declared it both a national embarrassment and one of the finest airplanes ever built. So I don’t know which John McCain we’re going to get.”

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